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How ‘Parasite’ made Oscars history as the first foreign-language best picture winner

“Parasite” writer-director Bong Joon Ho had many reasons to celebrate this season.
“Parasite” writer-director Bong Joon Ho had many reasons to celebrate this season.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

By the time Leonardo DiCaprio crashed the poolside “Parasite” party at the Sunset Tower Hotel on the weekend of the Golden Globes, the awards-season momentum for Bong Joon Ho’s acclaimed thriller had been building for months.

“Parasite” premiered at Cannes in May, unanimously winning the festival’s prestigious Palme d’Or prize, the first in a series of firsts for its filmmaker and for his native South Korea. It resurfaced in September at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals, key stops on the awards circuit, before opening in theaters in mid-October, selling out all of its shows and breaking box office records.

By that juncture, it was no longer a question of whether the film, distributed in the U.S. by Neon (a company founded just three years ago), would earn South Korea its first nomination in the Oscars’ international feature category. Now the ambitions were greater: Could “Parasite” become the first non-English language movie to win best picture?

It did just that Sunday night, also winning Oscars for director, original screenplay and international feature. By the end of the evening, Bong had taken the stage four times to accept trophies.

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“My initial thought from the first time I saw it — and then immediately watched it again — was, ‘This could win,’” says Perception PR awards consultant Lea Yardum, whose company ran the “Parasite” campaign. “Everybody thought from the beginning it was a multi-category play.”

The biggest obstacle blocking “Parasite” was the academy’s spotty history rewarding global cinema. Bong got out in front of this reticence with a great bit of shade thrown while accepting the foreign film award at the Golden Globes in early January.

“Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films,” he said.

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Of course, Alfonso Cuarón also lobbed a few pointed remarks campaigning for “Roma” last year, including a barbed line when accepting the Oscar last year for foreign-language film. “I grew up watching foreign-language films and learning so much from them — films like ‘Citizen Kane,’ ‘Jaws,’ ‘Rashomon,’ ‘The Godfather’ and ‘Breathless,’ ” he noted.

“Roma” won Cuarón Oscars for director and cinematography, but he lost the Oscars’ top prize to a more traditional crowd-pleaser, Peter Farrelly’s dramedy of racial reconciliation, “Green Book.”

“Parasite,” likewise, was competing this season against a movie that looked like many previous best picture winners: Sam Mendes’ war drama “1917,” a film honored by the producers and directors guilds.

But the similarities ended there. Cuarón’s black-and-white, meditative memoir was a movie more admired than loved. “Parasite” earned plenty of raves from reviewers, winning a clutch of critics group prizes in December. But its unpredictable, entertaining and, ultimately, devastating story of two families on opposite sides of the class divide also elicited a deep, publicly professed devotion among its fans, newcomers and #BongHive members alike.

This adoration played out at event after event. At a Screen Actors Guild nomination committee screening last fall, a moderator politely asked the audience — a group given to rushing the stage for selfies and small talk after events — to remain in their seats so Bong could leave quickly for another affair. When the Q&A ended, the audience obeyed, giving Bong a standing ovation and almost bowing toward him in unison as he left the theater.

Bong has long enjoyed that kind of following in America, akin to the allegiance shown toward Paul Thomas Anderson by longtime supporters. But with “Parasite,” he also demonstrated a tireless energy during the long awards season, charming voters with his authentic, gracious spirit, his humor and the way he celebrated his cast’s ensemble win at the SAG Awards, filming them like a proud dad.

Like the Oscar for best picture, that SAG Awards win was historic. And the thunderous applause that greeted it — and the earlier cheering when the movie’s cast simply walked onstage — was another indication of the passion people felt about “Parasite.”

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Two very different families collide in Bong Joon Ho’s masterful thriller, which will represent South Korea in this year’s Oscar race.

But as important as the SAG Awards win was, the nomination itself, announced in December, was even more significant. Because the cast — including Song Kang Ho, Chang Hyae Jin, Lee Sun Kyun, Choi Woo Shik, Park So Dam and Lee Jung Eun — spent much of the season working on movies at home in South Korea, the film’s awards team faced challenges connecting them with voters. The recognition from the Screen Actors Guild voters gave them some space to make those introductions.

By this point, “Parasite” was an indie box office hit, thanks to a smart, patient distribution plan engineered by Neon head Tom Quinn. Bong and Quinn had worked together previously on four films, leading to Quinn landing the North American rights to “Parasite” in October 2018. Coupled with the ecstatic reviews, the movie’s commercial success (it has grossed $34 million to date in the States and a massive $72 million at home), drove awards voters to screenings that took place not just in the usual locales, but in spots like Koreatown, not a ZIP Code normally associated with academy members.

Bong attended most of them, leading to a long-running lament about having to stand at American parties, a contrast to South Korea, where people sit down, talk and eat. The good-natured complaint was his lone regret from an exciting season that ended with a historic jolt felt around the world.

“After winning best international feature, I thought I was done for the day and was ready to relax,” Bong said, on his third trip to the stage, accepting the director prize.

He wasn’t done — and neither was “Parasite.”


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