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Bong Joon Ho’s ‘Parasite’ makes Oscars history as first-ever Korean best picture nominee

The Kim family folds pizza boxes in Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite.”
The Kim family folds pizza boxes in Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite.”
(Neon / CJ Entertainment)

The Academy Awards may not have a host this year, but they will have a “Parasite.”

Director Bong Joon Ho’s genre-jumbling class satire — a twisty, darkly comic thriller about two families, one rich and one poor, whose lives become entangled — made Oscars history Monday morning by becoming the first Korean film ever to earn a best picture nomination. In all, the film scored six Oscar nominations.

It also became the first Korean film to ever land a nomination in the international feature category (which was known as foreign language film before this year).

The nominations are likely to further boost what has already been a robust box office haul for the film, which has grossed nearly $150 million worldwide. “This is a very rare and precious event to happen to Asian and Korean film, and I think for me what’s really important is that before all these nominations the film did really well at the box office once it was released in North America,” Bong told The Times on Monday. “To receive all these nominations along with a great box office is what truly makes me happy.”

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Since its rapturously received debut at the Cannes Film Festival in May, where it won the Palme d’Or, “Parasite” has worked its way into the American cinematic bloodstream like few foreign-language films in memory, earning three Golden Globe nominations along with a raft of other honors from guilds and critics groups.

Director Bong, 50, has been building a devoted fan base since the early 2000s with idiosyncratic but always thrilling and thought-provoking genre mash-ups such as “Memories of Murder,” “The Host” and “Mother,” edging closer to the Hollywood mainstream with 2013’s dystopian sci-fi action film “Snowpiercer” and 2017’s un-categorizable adventure film “Okja.” Now, with “Parasite” — which is reportedly set to become the basis for an HBO limited series — Bong, who was nominated for directing, has achieved the sort of global recognition many feel he has always deserved.

As positive word-of-mouth around “Parasite” gathered steam in the fall at the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals, many wondered if it could follow the path of last year’s Alfonso Cuarón-directed “Roma” and break out of the academy’s foreign-language box to score a best picture nomination, a feat that fewer than a dozen international films have ever pulled off in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ 92-year history.

Speaking to the Los Angeles Times at Telluride in September, Bong said he felt the film’s depiction of the divide between the haves and have-nots had the potential to resonate with audiences everywhere, even if he couldn’t then imagine how big the #BongHive would eventually grow.

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“Of course, on the surface level, all of the details, the mannerisms, the people and the visual elements are all very Korean,” Bong said. “But the topic of the gap between rich and poor lends itself to being so universal. I think every country has their own structures and conflicts regarding class. But when you really delve deep into the cave of capitalism and explore the sort of infinite darkness of it, you find a similar sort of mechanism flows throughout.”

Whether “Parasite” can go on to win best picture — something no foreign-language film has ever done — remains to be seen. But for Bong, the nominations themselves already represent a kind of victory.

“I hope this serves as an inspiration for young filmmakers in Korea,” Bong said Monday. “I never create films for the sake of the country, but I think it’s great that a film I created for personal reasons ends up contributing to the entire industry.”

Times staff writer Jen Yamato contributed to this report.


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