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Why ‘Parasite’ and ‘1917' have more in common than you would think

The Kim family folds pizza boxes in Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite.”
“Parasite’s” hustling Kim family, from left: Choi Woo Shik, Song Kang Ho, Chang Hyae Jin and Park So Dam.
(NEON / CJ Entertainment)

“Strip away the phony tinsel of Hollywood,” it’s been famously said, “and you’ll find the real tinsel underneath.”

Similarly, if you go beneath the surface of the apparent rivalry for Oscar glory between “1917” and “Parasite” — which the South Korean film resoundingly won by taking best picture and three other Oscars — you find not opposites but two sides of the same coin, two films speaking to exactly the same situation in strikingly different ways.

On first glance, of course, those opposites are what strikes you. In one corner was “1917,” a major studio release from Universal, one of the first of the Hollywood studios, directed by previous Oscar winner Sam Mendes.

It’s a classic prestige picture complete with British accents that had the additional advantage of being a war movie, a genre that counted numerous previous adherents, from first winner “Wings” through “From Here To Eternity,” “Patton” and “The Hurt Locker” as best picture winners.

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In the other corner, so to speak, was “Parasite,” a film from South Korea, a country that had never won a single Oscar before looking for an award that no foreign-language film had ever captured.

“Parasite’s” distributor was Neon, not a storied studio but a feisty upstart that is barely three years old. And its story line had roots in down and dirty genre filmmaking, something the academy does not have a history of consistently rewarding.

But looked at from another angle, these differences fade in the face of a striking similarity: Though very different from each other, both are miles away from standard studio fare, miles away from the kind of bread and butter superhero/sequel/tentpole movies that take up the lion’s share of studio output most months of the year.

George MacKay stands in a foxhole among others in WWI costumes in the movie “1917.”
George MacKay in the WWI movie “1917.”
(Universal)

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This profound dissatisfaction with business as usual is not a new phenomenon, but it has been growing every year and is getting harder to ignore.

While it is encouraging for films as different as “Parasite” and “1917” to vie for the top prize, it doesn’t say a lot about the health of mainstream Hollywood that those who toil in its vineyards will go to whatever extremes necessary to avoid voting for the products that dominate its output.

But while looking at the 2020 Oscars through that lens is a disheartening exercise, there is, paradoxically, a way that the awards show, livelier than usual this year, gave reason for hope.

Because if there was a leitmotif to this year’s event, it was the unmistakable sense that the movies touch a deep chord in the people who make them, and that connection to and continuity with movies past are still a big deal.

It was heartening, for instance, to hear Brad Pitt, supporting actor winner for “Once Upon A Time … in Hollywood” talk about his parents taking him to a drive-in to see “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” or for makeup and hairstyling winner Kazu Hiro namecheck great names from the past such as Rick Baker and Dick Smith.

Having singer of the moment Billie Eilish beautifully sing “Yesterday” over the In Memoriam segment or even the announcement of the opening date of the long awaited academy film history museum emphasized the continued bond people feel with what has come before.

In fact, it could be argued that one of the most emotional moments of the entire show came when “Parasite” director Bong Joon Ho accepted his director Oscar.

Bong graciously thanked Quentin Tarantino for knowing about and promoting his films when they were not well known in this country.

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More than that, he talked about a quote that had inspired him from his student days, “the most personal is the most creative.” When he revealed that the words came from Martin Scorsese, in the audience as “The Irishman’s” director, the applause was deafening.

If there was a constant between the 2020 Oscars and the ones that came before, it was these speeches, the ones delivered with genuine emotion rather than laundry lists of thank yous, the things that touch the heart and remain in the memory.

It’s hard to forget Carol Dysinger, director of the Oscar-winning documentary short “Learning to Skateboard in a War Zone (If You’re A Girl),” talking about getting a Student Oscar from Frank Capra in 1977 and how that sustained her through difficult decades in the business.

And then there was Joaquin Phoenix, lead actor winner for “Joker,” who confessed to having been “a scoundrel, selfish, cruel at times, hard to work with” and almost broke down when quoting his late brother River’s work.

“Once upon a time in Hollywood, ain’t that the truth,” Brad Pitt said almost in disbelief about his career at the end of his remarks, and that thought could stand in for a lot of the emotion that marked this unprecedented night.


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