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‘Parasite’ should win all the Oscars. But it might not win any of them

Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho, director and co-writer of ‘Parasite’
Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho, director and co-writer of “Parasite.”
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

It was somewhere around the third pint of a perfectly named IPA called Bong Joon-hops that the conviction began to take hold, faint at first, but growing firmer with each sip.

“Parasite” could win the best picture Oscar this year.

Or it might not win any Oscars this year. I don’t know. Like I mentioned, I was on my third pint and, sitting in the bar of the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown, it was hard to differentiate between delusion and the conviction that I might be on to something.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. South Korea has never even had a movie nominated for foreign language feature (a category the motion picture academy renamed “international feature” this year) much less best picture, so how many beers does it take to think that “Parasite,” a dark social satire from the great Korean filmmaker (and brewing muse) Bong Joon Ho, could pull down a passel of nominations?

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Answer: Zero.

Or, depending on how dimly you view the academy’s taste, an entire keg.

But now is not the time for pessimism. We’re at the beginning of awards season, an open landscape full of possibility and infused with optimism. Lay down your weary tune from last year. And I don’t mean “Shallow” from “A Star Is Born,” because that song will be forever fresh. I’m talking about whatever burdens you might be carrying from last year’s Oscars. I’m not going to get into specifics. Those battles were fought and, in some cases, lost. This is a new day.

Also, to be clear: I’m not talking about blind enthusiasm here, though if you believe in your heart of hearts that “Cats” can rum-tum-tugger its way into the hearts of Oscar voters, you do you. Who knows? Maybe Mr. Mistoffelees can cast some kind of collective spell on the academy.

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But “Parasite” has the credentials, friends. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, besting Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.” It was a summer blockbuster in South Korea, grossing more than $70 million and it broke box office records here when it opened in limited release earlier this month.

Woo Silk Choi, Kang Ho Song, Lee Jeong Eun and Kim So Dam in a scene from Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite.”
Woo Silk Choi, Kang Ho Song, Lee Jeong Eun and Kim So Dam in a scene from Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite.”
(Neon)

Why the fuss?

“Parasite” taps into the divide between the haves and have-nots, a chasm present the world over and one that is particularly pronounced in Bong’s native country. It follows the Kim family, a quartet of adults living in a basement, eking out a living by assembling pizza boxes. Opportunity presents itself when the son begins a tutoring job for the wealthy Park family. Soon, the Kims infiltrate the lives of the pampered Parks in a manner that’s presented, initially, with sly humor and dry wit.

As the stakes heighten though, the laughter turns scathing and the tone becomes unsettling and terrifying. You’re never sure where the story’s heading and when it finally lands, the ending will leave you gutted.

Bong is adept at mixing genre thrills, visual artistry and pointed commentary, a command that’s on display in “Parasite” as well as the five movies that preceded it — “Okja,” “Snowpiercer,” “Mother,” “The Host” and “Memories of Murder.” Perhaps the cumulative power of that incredible run is why American moviegoers are catching up to him now. Maybe it’s simply because “Parasite” is so damn good.

Lee Sun Kyun and Jo Yeo Jeong in Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite.”
Lee Sun Kyun and Jo Yeo Jeong in Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite.”
(Neon)

The problem with “Parasite” and the Oscars begins with the fact that there is a separate category for international film, a division that may have been the primary reason “Roma” lost the best picture Oscar to “Green Book” in February. Why reward the same movie twice, the thinking goes.

“Roma” did win two other Oscars last year — both going to Alfonso Cuarón for directing and cinematography. And voters also nominated “Cold War” director Pawel Pawlikowski, marking the first time since 1985 that two foreign-language films were feted in the director category. International films popped in the cinematography and animated feature categories too. And “Roma” pulled in a total of 10 nominations.

The moral: Oscar voters, including all those new international members, are (maybe) just a bit more aware that they can reward movies from all over the world across their ballots.

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Which is why when I was at the Toronto International Film Festival last month, standing in a mile-long line for “Parasite” on the Ryerson University campus, pot smoke wafting through the air (“bong” jokes were in generous supply), it wasn’t hard to imagine the momentum for this movie continuing for months. It didn’t take a contact high to believe that “Parasite” could earn nominations for picture, director, original screenplay, cinematography, film editing and, of course, international feature.

Of course, “Parasite” could be nominated in all these categories and not win any of them, including the most obvious one, where it will likely compete against Pedro Almodóvar’s sublime “Pain and Glory,” an achingly beautiful movie that should also be nominated for best picture.

But for all its virtues, “Pain and Glory” lacks one crucial thing — its own beer. The mere existence of Bong Joon-hops, created by L.A.'s own Boomtown Brewery, points to the passion that “Parasite” produces among its fans, a base that straddles cineastes and the kind of weirdo genre enthusiasts that frequent the Alamo Drafthouse and consider “Idiocracy” to be the most important movie of the 21st century.

The beauty of the tribute isn’t lost on Bong. Alamo Drafthouse’s beer director John Gross presented the filmmaker with a glass when “Parasite” screened last month at Fantastic Fest, the annual genre film festival held in Austin, Texas. Before Gross could ask if he liked beer, Bong had already downed the contents (love those notes of peach flavor!) and asked for another.

Will we be lifting a glass in the movie’s honor after the Oscars in February? Yes! Absolutely. Right now, I’m singing along with Nina Simone. It’s a new dawn. It’s a new life. It’s a new day. And I’m feeling good. It’s not going to last ... but I’m feeling good.


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