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The Oscars need ‘Parasite’ more than ‘Parasite’ needs the Oscars

Park So Dam and Choi Woo Shik in the movie “Parasite.”
Park So Dam and Choi Woo Shik in the movie “Parasite.”
(Neon)

“Parasite” deserves to win best picture. “Parasite” can’t win best picture.

I’ve heard different versions of this frustrating sentiment echoed repeatedly since last fall, around the time it became clear that Bong Joon Ho’s mesmerizing movie — already feted with the Palme d’Or at Cannes and showered with glowing reviews — was going to be a much bigger deal than anyone had anticipated. Often I heard it from people who loved “Parasite” as much as I did, people who agreed with me that it was easily the best new movie of 2019, and who were therefore trying to temper their expectations of a motion picture academy that so rarely honors the best movies.

“Parasite” wouldn’t go empty-handed, of course. Months earlier, it already seemed clear that the movie would earn South Korea its historic first Academy Award nomination — and win — for international feature, and that it could become the rare non-English-language picture to cross over into major categories like picture, director and original screenplay. Sure enough, it wound up with nominations in all those categories, plus editing and production design, though its superb ensemble (led by Song Kang Ho, Choi Woo Shik, Park So Dam and Chang Hyae Jin) was predictably overlooked by the academy’s actors branch.

But as for actually winning the best picture Oscar, forget it.

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It wasn’t just that “Parasite” might be deemed too dark and violent by an academy that only rarely sees the merits of a thriller as unnerving as “No Country for Old Men” or “The Silence of the Lambs.” It wasn’t just that a corrosively funny, morally unsettling domestic drama about a subterranean class war might be a tougher sell than, say, Sam Mendes’ elegant and virtuosic World War I drama, “1917,” the clear industry favorite for best picture after winning top prizes from the producers and directors guilds earlier this month.

Genre, tone and subject matter are not the only barriers “Parasite” faces when it comes to snaring the academy’s top prize. To win, it will have to accomplish what previous best picture nominees like “Roma,” “Amour,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Cries and Whispers” and “Grand Illusion” ultimately could not. It will have to convince Oscar voters that, even in an admittedly remarkable year for American cinema, the very best movie told a story in a language other than English, and was made outside the parameters of the industry that the academy exists primarily to celebrate.

The “Parasite” ensemble accepts the SAG Award for performance by a cast in a motion picture.
Park So Dam, Lee Sun Kyun, Choi Woo Shik, Lee Jung Eun and Song Kang Ho accept the award for outstanding performance by a cast in a motion picture for “Parasite” at the Screen Actors Guild Awards.
(Chris Pizzello / Invision/AP)

As the recipient of numerous industry prizes already, some of them unprecedented for a non-English-language picture (including the Screen Actors Guild’s ensemble prize), “Parasite” may have come closer to persuading the academy than any non-English-language film before it. It says something about this movie’s peculiar brilliance that a story so specific in its contemporary Seoul milieu, and one that culminates with a headlong rush into horror and madness, has managed to resonate so powerfully all over the world, even with audiences not known for their love of edgy Korean cinema.

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Of course it resonates, the argument goes. What “Parasite” says about class inequality, about the eternally lopsided struggle between the haves and the have-nots, is so trenchant and recognizable that its story could easily be transplanted into any contemporary developed society. But to merely identify the themes of “Parasite” is to risk overlooking just how singularly, and cinematically, Bong articulates them. He effectively turns the entire notion of a social hierarchy on its head, channeling the ruthlessness of the class system into a genre template with its own merciless logic. He neither preaches nor panders; he neither sentimentalizes nor redeems. He lays all his characters bare, empathizing with all of them — or, to put it another way, none of them.

And without trying to, I imagine, Bong issues a forceful corrective to an American movie industry that too rarely engages class issues with anything approaching the same moral rage or rigor, even as wealth inequality and social injustice threaten to destabilize our body politic. He also offers, via the year’s most perfectly integrated ensemble of actors, a vision of a world in which women and men are granted equal importance; “Parasite” may be a seething cauldron of social unrest, but it is also a curiously utopian, even matter-of-fact demonstration of gender parity at work. If the first non-English-language movie to win the best picture Oscar should be a movie that puts Hollywood’s cinematic output to shame, it is hard to think of a better history maker than “Parasite.”

And the fact that it has taken nine decades to get to even this point makes you wonder: Do Oscar voters want to make this kind of history? Does an academy that has made sweeping efforts to diversify its ranks and broaden its international reach over the past few years actually care about achieving the logical outcome of those efforts? Will the membership ever acknowledge that cinema is and always has been a global medium, that no national cinema has a monopoly on greatness and that the best film every year is not always — perhaps not even usually — an American one?

The academy isn’t a monolith. Its members have made brilliant choices and regressive ones, sometimes in the same year. But the short answer, I think, is no: A significant faction of voting members have no interest in accomplishing any of those milestones.

Lee Sun Kyun and Cho Yeo Jeong in the movie “Parasite.”
Lee Sun Kyun and Cho Yeo Jeong in the movie “Parasite.”
(Neon/CJ Entertainment)

And why should they? I’ve heard that question from many who believe that the academy exists primarily for the veneration of American movies and should thus reserve its top prize for American movies alone. I’ve also heard it posed by international cinephiles who are openly contemptuous of the Academy Awards to begin with, and who sneer at the idea that its choices have any meaning or credibility, especially as a measure of the best in world cinema.

“Get over the Oscars,” their logic goes. “Stop paying attention to them, stop caring about their choices, stop pretending they’ll ever be able to look beyond their own backyard.”

They have a point, to be sure. A best picture Oscar will not make “Parasite” a greater movie than it is, and a loss will not diminish its greatness. One of the joys of seeing Bong navigate the awards circuit has been his insistence on gently yet firmly pointing out that circuit’s blind spots. In one widely circulated interview, he slyly described the Oscars as a “very local” affair. More than once, he refuted the suggestion that he might direct a Hollywood superhero movie in the future, gently deflecting the idea that carrying water for the Marvel Cinematic Universe is somehow the apex of cinematic accomplishment.

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Accepting the Golden Globe for foreign-language film, Bong declared, with exquisite sarcasm: “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” The Beverly Hilton black-tie crowd cheered at that line; their applause would have rung less hollow at an event where “Parasite” had actually been allowed to compete for the top prize.

The academy, unlike the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., at least nominates non-English-language movies for best picture from time to time. They believe, in theory at least, in a level playing field, where differences of language and culture are no impediment to cinematic greatness. And the choices that the academy makes still matter to those of us who, against our better judgment, persist in caring about the Oscars — not because they represent an infallible measure of quality but because they still can be, and sometimes are, a force for cinematic good.

It’s a boon to our movie culture when they get it right, even if it happens only once in a blue “Moonlight.” The Oscars are ludicrous, but like a lot of ludicrous things, they command the attention of millions and the dollars of a deep-pocketed industry. Their choices can shed worthy light on movies that deserve it, encourage audiences to see a movie they might not have heard of, and even influence the kind of work that get bankrolled, greenlighted, acquired for distribution and pushed for awards.

Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay in the movie “1917.”
Dean-Charles Chapman, left, and George MacKay in the movie “1917.”
(Francois Duhamel)

I should note that, despite my admittedly rabid fandom, “Parasite” is hardly the only best picture nominee that would strike me as a worthy winner this year. It’s disheartening that both “Little Women,” Greta Gerwig’s bold and luminous reinterpretation of a literary classic, and “Marriage Story,” Noah Baumbach’s blistering anatomy of a family in freefall, were relegated so quickly to also-ran status, probably due to their perceived lack of grandeur. And it’s odd that the epic match-up that many were envisioning between Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” and Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” two career-summarizing triumphs from two great American auteurs, seems to have more or less evaporated, to judge by their underperformance with the guilds.

Did the Tarantino and Scorsese movies strike voters as too long, too self-reflective, too indulgent? Did “1917” and “Parasite” become the presumed leaders because they seemed leaner, sharper, more dramatically taut and technically impressive? Perhaps so. Certainly it’s fascinating to compare these two movies, both of which merge clockwork plotting and virtuoso technique but which otherwise could hardly represent more oppositional notions of what great filmmaking looks like.

One key source of “1917’s” academy appeal is that it’s a case of old wine being poured into new wineskins. It’s classicism with a veneer of radicalism (and thus the opposite of “Little Women,” a genuinely radical movie with a classical veneer). “1917” also has noble themes about the futility of war and the brotherhood of man, served up with the trappings of prestige — the impeccable period details and British accents — that have long been the academy’s preferred shorthand for quality, greatness, importance.

There is, in short, a class dimension to both the best picture race and the American film industry’s warped view of its own greatness, and it can’t help but make me ponder anew the class dimensions of “Parasite.” One of the very best things about this movie is that it lacks even the faintest whiff of manufactured prestige. And in following its example, perhaps we should resist ascribing too much value, material or metaphorical, to the academy’s little golden trinkets, any more than we should care about the large decorative rock that sets the plot of Bong’s movie in motion.

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“Parasite” deserves to win best picture, and I still believe it can. But it has nothing left to prove at this point. The academy very much does.


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