Is Parasite an Academy outlier?

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“I feel like I’ll wake up to find it’s all a dream.” As one of the film industry’s leading directors, one would be forgiven for thinking that Bong Joon-Ho could have used a more creative analogy in his Oscars acceptance speech.

However, the quote succinctly captures the unexpectedness of this year’s awards; in a marked shift from the Academy’s usually predictable awards ceremony, South Korean film Parasite scooped four awards, including the coveted ‘best picture’ prize- the first non-English language film to do so in the awards’ 92-year history.

International films such as Parasite contain universal themes including class and wealth which permeate and transcend boundaries.

Bong’s dark capitalist satire is clever and arresting; set in Seoul, the film is an upstairs-downstairs account of the predatory Kim family who, by posing as various household staff positions, infiltrate the wealthy mansion of the Park family. With a shocking plot twist, the narrative discloses the equal dysfunction of both families and raises wider questions of wealth and class.

Parasite’s success marks a seminal moment for the film industry. While Bong contends that “we never write [films] to represent our countries,” he adds in the next breath that “this is the very first Oscar for South Korea.” It is an accolade which marks an intensely personal victory for South Korea.

President Moon Jae-In tweeted that Bong had brought “pride and courage” to the nation and has promised to increase government support for filmmakers, while the Korean film council has allocated a 32% increase in funding for film development. Success at the Oscars is, in many ways, the final recognition of South Korean cultural talent, which is universal in its appeal as shown by the international success of K-Pop.

With a tradition of honouring Western (indeed, LA- based) films, Bong himself has previously claimed that “the Oscars are not an international film festival. They’re very local.” The Academy now has an opportunity to reverse this reputation, and to usher in a new era of internationalism which is reflective of the film industry itself: global box office figures have steadily increased from 50% in 2000, to 73% last year, while South Korea is the 5th biggest film industry by sales.

However, it is arguable whether this opportunity will be grasped by the academy and indeed the wider film industry.

Surely, in this period of globalisation, language should be increasingly obsolete within film; international films such as Parasite contain universal themes including class and wealth which permeate and transcend boundaries.

To quote Bong again, “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to many more amazing films.” This message must be heeded by the Academy, which should be keen to embrace more international films, not only from South Korea but also Japan, Bollywood and Nollywood, to name only a few.

However, it is arguable whether this opportunity will be grasped by the academy and indeed the wider film industry. This week’s awards are evocative of a similarly momentous 2017 ceremony, when Moonlight, a gay coming of age tale with a predominantly black cast, won ‘best picture.’ Many thought this was indicative of a new era of change; however, with only one person of colour nominated for an acting award this year, diversity remains an issue. More cynical is the suggestion that one reason for Parasite’s success is voters attempting to prove their inclusivity in an Academy which, despite recent improvements, is still two-thirds male and five-sixths white.

As suggested by producer Kwak Sin-ae during his Oscars acceptance speech, the triumph of this film presents ‘a very opportune moment in history.’ We would be foolish to waste it.

Image: Dick Thomas Johnson via flickr

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