Parasite and Bong Joon-ho

When 50-year-old South Korean director Bong Joon-ho walked onto the stage of the Dolby Theatre for the final award of the 92nd Academy Awards Feb. 9, the audience rose to its feet, lauding him for the fourth time that night as if by reflex — except that their shrieks of surprise and delight came from the heart. Only one other time in Oscar history had a single artist won four Oscars in the same evening: Walt Disney in 1954. Disney’s Oscars were for four different films: two documentaries, a live-action short and an animated short. Bong’s were, notably, for a single film: Parasite. 

Bong is the first South Korean filmmaker to win an Oscar for Best Director, the first  Korean film to win Best International Feature, the first to win Best Original Screenplay and the first to win Best Picture — and, most surprising, Parasite is the first movie ever to win Oscars for both Best International Feature and Best Picture. Oscar nominations were also received by the film’s editor, Yang Jin-mo, and its production designers, Lee Ha-jun and Cho Won-woo.

For Academy members who are long-time devotees of what used to be called the “foreign-language film,” the Best Picture award, especially, validated their conviction that the most exciting movies today are being made not only in Hollywood, but also in many far-flung outposts of cinema such as North Macedonia (Honeyland), Mauritania (Timbuktu), Senegal (Atlantics) and Lebanon (Capernaum and The Insult).

“Director Bong,” as he is called by his loyal crew members, received one solo Oscar, Best Director. He shared the screenplay Oscar with Han Jin-won and Best Picture with fellow producer Kwak Sin-ae. The Best International Feature Oscar is technically awarded to the submitting country but is almost always accepted by the director.

What became clear to the cinema world watching the Oscars Feb. 9 is that all the hard work and support for international cinema and international filmmakers that has been an Academy mission in recent years, including deep outreach to secure new members in the international community, is paying off with many more new members from around the world voting for the Academy Awards. (I take special pride in the fact that in one of my final weeks as president of the Academy, I signed new-member certificates not only for Lady Gaga, but also — and so dear to me — for 88-year-old French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant of Conformista. The previous year, I signed new-member certificates for 80-year-old Italian director Marco Bellocchio, whose magnificent new film, The Traitor, was Italy’s submission for Best International Feature in 2019, and certificates also for legendary Spanish cinematographer José Luis Alcaine, photographer of this year's Spanish entry, Pain and Glory.)

The question now is whether the Academy's unprecedented acknowledgement of a foreign-language movie is a window into a new cinema landscape or a standalone, stunning anomaly scored by a master filmmaker.

The triumph of Parasite on the Dolby stage was a surprise only to movie fans who had not followed the trajectory of this singular film since the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d’Or. When screenings of the 91 films submitted for the International Feature Award began last October at the Linwood Dunn Theater, many Academy voters on the first-phase committee already anticipated that Parasite would be a slam-dunk for the 10-film shortlist. After it was screened for members the following month, it also became widely regarded as a strong contender for that Oscar. (Carol and I missed the official screening, as we were at the Camerimage festival in Poland. I had already seen Parasite — with Spanish subtitles — at the Morelia Festival. I would see it several more times as well.) 

While the upstairs/downstairs social criticism and dark, even fatalistic humor of Parasite has broad appeal for filmmakers, it is also the film's fast pacing, its constant, quirky plot turns and its stylistic conviction that keep viewers glued to the screen, afraid to blink lest they miss a sudden plot twist that might have had even Hitchcock shaking his jowls. As I’ve begun to examine the abiding hold Parasite has on so many different viewers, I’ve found myself exploring a path deeper inside the mysteries of the movie — from the Korean perspective, with insights, symbols, images and metaphors that are not fully understood by Western audiences. Rather than explore them one by one, here are several videos that offer an Ariadne thread through the labyrinth:

The Visual Architecture of Parasite

The Cinematography of Parasite

Parasite’s Perfect Montage

And this article in The Guardian offers an explanation of the metaphorical and central importance of the Korean “viewing stone” that seems to initiate plot movement in the film.

I will not try to testify to how you may “read” these materials, but I’m sure they will provide insight into the stylistic exactitude of Bong’s film. The cinematic magic seemed to escape the current occupant of the Oval Office, who, at a recent rally in Colorado Springs covered by the print and TV media, criticized the Academy for awarding a “foreign” film the Best Picture Oscar during the middle of a trade war with South Korea; he argued instead for a return to films like the 80-year-old melodrama Gone with the Wind. Parasite distributor Neon responded to the President’s apparent aversion to subtitled films by tweeting, “Understandable: he can’t read.”

I close with my own behind-the-curtains photo of Parasite's assembled Oscars, which I spotted while exiting the Dolby Theatre. The statuettes rested on the floor at Bong's house-right, orchestra, aisle seat as he and his cast and crew commanded the Dolby stage moments after the TV broadcast ended, savoring their extraordinary moment in Korean, Hollywood and world-cinema history.

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