“Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films,” said Bong Joon-ho when accepting his award for Best Foreign-Language Film at the Golden Globes this year. Just over a month later, his film Parasite has made Oscar history as the first non-English speaking film to win Best Picture.
The film, an enthralling dark comedy, focuses on two families from opposite ends of the socio-economic spectrum, who become increasingly entangled in each other’s lives. Besides Best Picture, Parasite also picked up awards for Best Director, Best International Film and Best Original Screenplay, making the night particularly momentous. What does all this mean for the future of the Oscars?
The Oscars have been historically influential in guiding audiences to watch certain films, but many wins have been predictable, and even boring, choices. Indeed, many have contended that the Oscars are simply a “popularity contest”, rewarding and endorsing films that are commercially successful and often follow the same “safe” formulas. We hear every year about films that are “Oscar-bait” in the making, meeting certain criteria and yet ultimately lacking the vibrancy of innovative writing and fresh perspectives. This legacy resounds in the existence of some very forgettable Best Picture winners (*cough* 2019’s Green Book).
Parasite winning Best Picture is a huge and vitally-needed endorsement of international cinema. In the history of the Oscars, non-English language films have only been nominated 11 times for Best Picture. While some moviegoers automatically refuse to see subtitled films, this win could open these same audiences up to watching films they may not have previously considered, which often provide angles and plot-lines that feel completely new. Diverse and interesting filmmaking is exactly what is needed in this day and age, with audiences repeatedly showing that they will turn out in the masses to see original ideas, especially featuring underrepresented demographics. For once it seems as though the Oscars will be a useful point of reference for viewers looking for a film that is gripping and genuinely inventive.
Beyond inviting new audiences, this win could mark the beginning of more acknowledgment for international filmmakers. With this Best Picture win, some praise is given where praise is due, at last. Asians actors and filmmakers have continually been under-represented by the Oscars, both in nominations and wins, but also by the film industry at large. This marginalisation is evident in this year’s acting nominations, in which no Parasite cast members were nominated for an Oscar. In fact, only one actor of colour (Cynthia Erivo) was nominated in a major acting category. Speaking to CNN, Nancy Wang Yuen comments: “I think it’s ridiculous that you would have a film receive six nominations, but none of the actors are nominated. Like, “Oh, this film is so good, but the actors didn’t do anything.”
The Oscars clearly have a long way to go in rectifying the underrepresentation of nominations and awards for people of colour. Parasite‘s wins at the 92nd Academy Awards make history in numerous ways: as the first non-English speaking film to win Best Picture; as the first film by a South Korean director to win Best Picture; as the first film with a primarily Asian cast to win Best Picture.
In recognising a non-English speaking film as worthy of accolades beyond just Best International Feature, this will hopefully be the start of a new beginning for the Oscars.