“Parasite,” the South Korean feature film, sent tremors Sunday night through a traditional Oscars ceremony that has been widely criticized for its lack of diversity. The dark comedy won four major awards, including the coveted Best Picture award. And the reverberations continue.
Directed by Bong Joon Ho, an acclaimed South Korean filmmaker, “Parasite” is a dark comedy about a poor family that schemes to become employed by a wealthy family. It swept the 92nd Academy Awards, winning Best Picture, Best Director, Best International Feature Film, and Best Original Screenplay. And it made Oscar history by becoming the first non-English language film to win Best Picture. Bong is now tied with Walt Disney for most awards won in one night.
The historic wins by “Parasite” sent New Yorkers buzzing with excitement. Filmmakers and moviegoers alike agree that “Parasite” is an important moment for cinema history, one that strengthens both diversity and unity. Many see it as a symbol of progress, expanding the scope of representation in an industry that is widely seen as being entrenched in the past.
“I would hope that it means that films that aren’t just made for the white, English-speaking mainstream can be commercially successful and critically acclaimed,” said Bryan Chang, 36, a documentary filmmaker whose films have been in languages such as Serbian, Spanish, and Mandarin Chinese. “You’re often told by the gatekeepers of the film world that if your film’s not in English, you’re going to have a much harder time getting distribution and getting eyeballs.”
Bong himself had addressed this in his Golden Globe speech in January, famously saying, “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” “Parasite” won best foreign-language film at the Golden Globe ceremony.
Chang, whose parents are Taiwanese, believes that “Parasite” could open the door for more Asian and Asian-American representation in mainstream film, a struggle which he finds is “is uniquely American, in terms of how races are recognized in the United States, and who gets to tell the stories that our public consumes.”
The New York film community’s fervor over the win is notable because the city is a hotbed of the “most rabid and excitable cinema audiences,” as described by John Vanco, 52, the senior vice president and general manager of the IFC Center in downtown Manhattan. “Parasite” broke all box office records for the theater, which has played the movie every day since its opening in October. According to Vanco, it grossed $207,000 in the opening week, beating “Boyhood,” the IFC Center’s former top biller, by a wide margin of $80,000—huge by industry standards.
Vanco ascribes the film’s record-breaking success in part to its ability to transcend language or cultural barriers that may be perceived by non-Korean speaking viewers. “It’s accessible and rewarding in visceral and emotional ways,” he said. “Walking out of the theater, you don’t feel like you just experienced some exotic, unfamiliar world.”
The movie’s universal themes of greed and class discrimination speak to a wider audience, who can relate to the on-screen characters’ struggles with life in a society commandeered by capitalism. Samuel Jamier, 44, the executive director of the New York Asian Film Foundation, believes the global popularity of “Parasite” arises from its focus on local issues.
“If you make a film that’s sincere enough, one that comes from a place where you focus on local concerns and what you actually know—instead of trying to manufacture some hypothetical and largely fantasized international audience—it will speak to everyone,” he said.
Jamier considers this a quality of many Korean filmmakers, who often cast a critical eye on the world and question it. The South Korean film industry was largely shaped by historical events like the Japanese occupation of Korea in 1910-45, the Korean War in 1950-53, and the subsequent governments’ political and social oppression that persisted in the postwar era, according to Darcy Paquet in her book New Korean Cinema: Breaking the Waves.
As a film that is at once universal and uniquely Korean, “Parasite” has also been described as monumental for its ability to expose a relatively unseen aspect of South Korean culture. “It’s through fiction and storytelling that a broader audience can learn more about what Korea really is like,” said Sam Choi, 23, a Korean student at Columbia University and brother of Bong’s translator, Sharon Choi. “There’s so much more to our culture than K-pop or Korean dramas, like the socioeconomic problems that are very specific to Korea.”
Following his staggering win at the Oscars, Bong himself became a cultural icon on social media, even giving rise to a “BongHive”—a play on Beyonce’s fanbase, the “BeyHive.”
The Korean director’s willingness to be involved in international premieres and award ceremonies has also made “Parasite” a global phenomenon. “The way people engaged with him as an iconic filmmaker through social media and so forth really helped elevate this movie as something that people couldn’t ignore,” remarked IFC’s Vanco.
— Kat Cho 🦊🇰🇷📚 (@KatCho) February 10, 2020
Vanco, who attended the Oscars ceremony on Sunday, says that there has also been a strong campaign by the academy to become more diverse. This year, the Oscars renamed its “Best Foreign Language Film” award to “Best International Feature Film,” recognizing the title’s America-centric connotation.
“Many people saw ‘Parasite’ as internationalizing and de-parochializing the Oscars,” he said. “I don’t know where that will take the Oscars, since there’s a lot to celebrate in old-school Hollywood filmmaking, but I think this is going to make it easier for other foreign-language films and other portraits of diverse experiences outside the country to have a place on the stage.”
Some members of the New York film community, however, are more reserved in their optimism. Zachary Levy, 46, a filmmaker and president of the New York Film/Video Council, thinks that while the movie’s win was an important first step, it won’t usher in a wave of immediate change.
“A battleship doesn’t turn around on a dime,” Levy said. “The main impact will be more aspirational and inspirational. It will remind people whose voices are not normally heard in Hollywood that they can strive to be in that world, if they want to be, and have a chance of making in that world.”