FILM

The Oscars Needed Parasite Way More Than Parasite Needed the Oscars

The Oscars needed to cling to Parasite, kind of like a...well, a parasite.

Noel West for The New York Times

If there's ever been a Best Picture-winning movie that actually deserved every ounce of the surrounding hype, it's Bong Joon-ho's Parasite.

Parasite is nothing short of a masterpiece. The story about the parasitic relationship between two families––one rich, one poor––was unique, wholly original, and specific to Korean culture, but the intensely anti-capitalist themes of class warfare resonated with audiences around the world. It's a film that proves great storytelling transcends language, and more importantly––much like Korea's other international phenomenon, BTS––Parasite's overwhelming popularity proves that Western media is no longer the pinnacle of pop culture. We live in a globalist society; Pop culture is global now, too.

All of this is to say that Parasite earned all four of its history-making Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best International Feature Film), becoming the first non-English language movie to win Best Picture since the Academy Awards' inception in 1929. Parasite's four Oscars also tied Bong Joon-ho with Walt Disney for most Oscars won in a single night (barring the technicality that "Best International Feature Film" is awarded to the country instead of the Director/Producer). But in a larger cultural context, what is an Oscar actually worth?

Undoubtedly, Parasite's Oscar sweep will lead to more people seeking it out and, hopefully, diving into the rest of Bong Joon-ho's backlog, which includes other fantastic movies like Snowpiercer and The Host. And, of course, anything that leads to more global renown for a once-in-a-generation creative voice like Bong Joon-ho is a cause for celebration.

Still, it's important to remember that the Academy is a systemically sexist and racist organization with a majority white male voting body that has historically promoted the voices of white male filmmakers above everyone else. The fact that they made the right Best Picture call this year doesn't change the fact that they failed to nominate any female directors and only nominated one non-white actor, or the fact that they awarded Green Book Best Picture last year. It also doesn't change the fact that, while they acknowledged Bong Joon-ho, the Academy didn't nominate any members of Parasite's incredibly talented all-Asian cast, any of whom should have easily qualified.

The Oscars are losing relevance in the greater public conscience. From media outlet boycotts to viewers simply deciding not to tune in, more and more people seem to be realizing that the Oscars are, more often than not, nothing more than a masturbatory award show wherein wealthy people hold up white hegemony while pretending that they're pro-diversity. In some sense, the Academy needed to award Parasite Best Picture if they had any hope of staying relevant to viewers. After all, Parasite was the best movie of 2019 by a longshot, far better than anything that came out of Western media, and a failure to recognize that would have clearly exposed the Academy as overwhelmingly biased.

Parasite CJ Entertainment


That's not to say Parasite's win won't do legitimate good for the future of Hollywood. It very well might. If this win means that Hollywood starts to turn an eye outwards to global media, and actively seek voices from outside their bubble, that would be a huge shift in the right direction. But that's not a guarantee. The danger is that instead of viewing Parasite's massive success as an indicator of a major shift in global media consciousness, Hollywood executives could instead spend the next year trying to reproduce endless, doomed-to-fail Western takes of "Parasite meets X," and then write global cinema off the following year when none of their rehashes succeed.

While Parasite might get a visibility boost from its Oscars wins, the Oscars can never be credited with making Parasite a success. Parasite succeeded entirely on its own merits, spreading through word-of-mouth due to its incredible artistry and resonant message. On the other hand, had Parasite not won, every subsequent article would be focused on how an incredible Korean film lost to the likes of Joker or Once Upon a Time in Hollywood––yet another forever stain on The Academy. This year, if they had any hopes of staying relevant, The Oscars needed to cling to Parasite, kind of like a...well, a parasite.

But does that mean 2020 will see mainstream Hollywood cinema moving in a fresh direction, or will the next Best Picture be Green Book 2: Green Books Never Sleep? That remains to be seen.

CJ Entertainment

In most regards, the 2020 Oscars are already a disappointment.

In a year full of cinematic diversity, from Lulu Wang's brilliant The Farewell and Greta Gerwig's revitalization of Little Women to Lupita Nyong'o's haunting turn in Us, the major category Oscar nominations are all too blatantly white and male.

Across all four Best Actor/Actress categories, 20 nominations in total, only one POC was named––Cynthia Erivo for her leading role in the Harriet Tubman biopic, Harriet. Apparently Awkwafina's Golden Globe-winning performance of a Chinese-American woman coping with a looming familial death from two conflicting cultural perspectives in The Farewell was not worthy of a spot over Charlize Theron playing former Fox News host Megyn Kelly.

Awkwafina the farewell A24

The Best Director nominations are also, once again, entirely male, with Greta Gerwig getting categorically snubbed, despite Little Women receiving nods for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actress. But at least that's better than the Oscar's treatment of Lulu Wang, who got snubbed entirely. Todd Phillips' Joker, on the other hand, received 11 nominations, more than any other movie this year, which says pretty much everything anyone needs to know about the 2020 Oscars… Or at least it would, if not for Parasite's Best Picture nomination.

In the entire history of the Oscars, only six foreign language films have been nominated for both Best International Film (formerly "Best Foreign-Language Film") and Best Picture. All of them have won the International category, but none have ever taken home the grand prize. After all, for an International Film to win Best Picture, that would require the Academy's overwhelmingly white male voting body (as of 2018, out of 8,000 members, 84% are white and 69% are male) to agree that a movie made by a POC outside of Hollywood is better than anything produced from within (and, more importantly, to actually read subtitles).

A lot of people were surprised by the 2019 Oscars when Green Book––a movie about race relations from the perspective of a white director, white writer, and white protagonist––beat Roma, Alfonso Cuaron's intimate portrayal of a poor Mexican housekeeper. In retrospect, the Academy's choice makes sense. Roma feels like an art film, whereas Green Book practically shouts, "It's okay, white people, we solved racism through friendship!" Considering the Academy's demographic, it was the obvious choice.

But that was 2019, and this is 2020. If the Oscars hope to maintain any glimmer of relevance in the new decade beyond just another masturbatory awards show where Hollywood elites pay lip service to diversity while endlessly patting white men on the back, Parasite needs to win Best Picture.

song kang ho parasite CJ Entertainment

For one, Parasite absolutely deserves it. Bong Joon-ho's darkly comedic thriller about South Korea's class divide is unique, impactful, and more timely than any other film this year. Its themes surrounding ambition, desperation, loss, and social immobility both feel specific to South Korea, and maintain a universality that connects with audiences around the world. Joon-ho's direction and writing (he was also nominated for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay) were spot on, approaching all of its characters with distinct empathy while subjecting them to some of the most brutal, unpredictable twists of any thriller in recent years. The acting was phenomenal too, and it's worth noting that Song Kang-ho's omission from the Best Lead Actor category displays a clear failure on the Academy's part to recognize the humanity of Asian actors and characters.

Still, Parasite seems better poised to win Best Picture than any international film in years past. That's not to knock any of the international Best Picture nominees that came before it, but rather to comment on the modern era. People are more globally connected than ever, thanks to the Internet, and Parasite falls into an overwhelmingly popular, accessible genre and encompasses universally appealing themes. In other words, the only barrier to entry is the subtitles.

It's time for Hollywood to recognize that as the world becomes more internationally connected, white western media can no longer be considered the end-all and be-all of cultural influence. Bong Joon-ho is living proof that some of the most important, talented artistic voices of our era are not white, American men and that diversity is a gift to creativity.