Parasite made history at the 2020 Oscars by not only receiving the first (and second, third and fourth) award for a South Korean film, but also for becoming the first film in a non-English language to take home the coveted Best Picture.
Leading up to Hollywood’s biggest night of the year, everyone loved Parasite. It was a critical smash, with a genre-bending story of a poor family in a half-basement apartment invading the lives and wallets of an upper echelon family in plain sight. With the infinitely charming and personable director, Bong Joon-ho, at it’s helm, it first blipped on the international radar when it secured the Palm D’or, the highest honor at Cannes Film Festival.
But reviews tell only half the story, and while popularity is not necessarily as important to the Oscars as it is the Grammys, it still carries weight. Fortunately, the film, before it became the worldwide phenomenon of now, became the 19th highest grossing domestic film in South Korea (it has since gone on to be the highest worldwide grossing South Korean film of all time). By the time the film was limitedly released in the West, the perpetual American hype machine was already in full swing, with audiences young and old raving.
So the critics loved it, audiences loved it, and it was growing more popular by the day worldwide. Yet, by the time Oscar night rolled around, it was still not considered a frontrunner for any major category. Neon, the film’s small and scrappy US distributors, allocated a frugal $4M – $5M on Oscars campaigning, which compared to Netflix’s $100M for their various projects like The Irishman, makes it sound grassroots. At first the low budget seemed to be Parasite’s awards season downfall: while it was by no means snubbed from other accolades, it didn’t take home any big prizes for the most part, with the exceptions of a Screen Actor’s Guild award for the ensemble cast and a Best Director Critics Choice award for Bong Joon-ho.
With Quinton Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood and Sam Mendes’ 1917 sweeping the critical awards at the Golden Globes and Critics Choice, and Brad Pitt, Joaquin Phoenix, and Renee Zellweger splitting all the acting prizes, Parasite, (which got no love for any actor from the Academy) looked like it was going to be another casualty of Hollywood. After all, the only thing Hollywood likes more than period war movies are movies about Hollywood. But then, seemingly out of nowhere early in the ceremony, Parasite swept the rug out from under Mendes and Tarantino and snagged Best Original Screenplay. Then, as expected, it was later awarded Best International Feature Film. Only after Bong Joon-ho came from behind once again to take home Best Director did it seemed like a Best Picture win might actually be in the cards.
Parasite’s big win was truly a case of “right place right time.” In any other year, Parasite would not have been the same mega-hit it is now. Critical darling? Absolutely. But Hollywood infiltrator? Less likely. Foreign films are rarely even nominated in the Best Picture category, and when they are (Babel in 2006, Amour in 2012), typically they have always felt, for lack of a better term, token. They are never expected to win, simply put there by the Academy in a perfunctory effort to appear diverse. There are exceptions of course, like Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000 and more recently 2018’s Roma. In fact, Roma in many ways felt even more “right place right time” than Parasite; a film about a lower-class Mexican woman nannying an upper class family’s children spoke volumes to the dominantly liberal Academy living in Trump’s America. But in typical fashion, it was scooped by Green Book, a white savior narrative. Parasite was the Academy’s chance at redemption, and they took it. It felt anything other than token. In contrast to many foreign films nominated in non-foreign film categories over the years (particularly after the turn of the century), instead of feeling deserving but unassuming, Parasite felt both deserving and expected.
What made it the right time for Parasite then? For one it is expertly crafted: production meticulously shopped around for the perfect lot to build that now iconic picturesque house from scratch, making sure they found a space that was the ideal grounds for their vision. Shots were carefully set up to accentuate the sometimes literal lines between classes; natural light was tamed with precision; the writing and acting was stellar and sharp; everyone was asking what “ram-don” was and chanting “Jessica, only child, Illinois, Chicago.”
But none of this sets Parasite particularly far apart from its competition (1917 after all was impressively made to look like a single, continuous shot.) What made Parasite “right place right time” was that it spoke particularly to Americans in 2019 in ways other foreign films haven’t. It has never been more apparent than in the last half decade the role of capitalism and classism (along with plenty other less than desirable -isms). The 99% in America doesn’t trust the rich anymore. The greedy corporate suits of the US’s corporations are the villains that we love to hate but sucker up to in the hopes of maybe being like them one day. Parasite emulates that sentiment beautifully, with a satirical edge that made all the difference. To attack classism head on, even in the context of a different nation, is to appeal to modern America.
In many ways Parasite’s plot emulates it’s path as a film. Just as the lower class Kim family were able to infiltrate their way into the home and pockets of the wealthy Parks, so too did Bong Joon-ho and company wriggle their way into the minds, hearts, and yes, pockets of the Hollywood elite. And that is what makes Parasite not only a heartwarming underdog story, but a true American one. Bong Joon-ho took to heart the teachings of his film school idol Martin Scorsese and created an American tale (of sorts) when we were craving it most.