Director Bong Joon-ho with the cast of Parasite at the 92nd Academy Awards. The film won four Oscars — Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Foreign Film. (Reuters)
By the time you read this, Bong Joon-ho may be busy recovering from a hangover of a lifetime.
“I am ready to drink tonight, until next morning,” he said on stage, grinning delightedly, and the theatre full of delirious winners and putting-a-brave-face-on-it losers knew exactly how he felt.
On top of the world, because that’s what winning the Oscar feels like, and Bong Joon-ho won not one, but four of those, creating history at the 92nd Oscars.
The punters had put their money on 1917, Sam Mendes’s beautifully orchestrated World War I saga featuring two young soldiers and the futility of all conflict. Quentin Tarantino’s nostalgia-laden ode to a Hollywood that was, was thought to be a favourite with the Hollywood that is. But it was Parasite which swept the biggies which included the expected Best Foreign Film, Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, and, oh yeah, oh yeah, Best Picture.
You could say Bong, 50, who graciously nodded to Scorsese and Tarantino, had earned his drink.
The other wins are exhilarating enough. But the Best Picture award has never gone to a film which has, in Bong’s words, one-inch subtitles running at the bottom of the screen.
This recognition has multiple ramifications but the biggest of them all is that the Academy, whose voters are primarily middle-aged White Americans, has finally woken up to the fact that “foreign films” are also worthy of being “the best.”
And not just any old foreign films. Giving two big awards to Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” (Best Foreign Film, Best Director, in 2019), from neighbouring Mexico, keeps it in the neighbourhood.
But Bong is South Korean, and for Americans, whose idea of Asia has till very recently been confined to China and Japan, S. Korea is still an alien, unknown land. Bong is, indubitably, Asian. And for an Asian to be welcomed into the all-white-club is major, especially an Asian whose best work is rooted firmly in his culture, where family, values, and connections are still prized possessions.
The two families in “Parasite.” one rich, the other poor, are poles apart in many respects. But the closeness between the members of those families is something that is common to all Asians, whether they wear Louis Vuitton suits or slum it out in basements.
These are qualities that have gone missing from the big-budget tentpoles, or the superhero sagas that Hollywood studios are spending all their time and money on, the kind of films that Martin Scorsese has very recently controversially slammed as “not cinema.”
It is also a win for the Oscars, which were slowly sliding into irrelevance. We know that the glittering red carpet designer wear evening is Hollywood celebrating its own best and brightest. But we also know that if you do not go global, you are dead. Films that open up a universe you had no clue about may use a foreign language with a subtitle crawl, but they speak to us. Not everything is lost in translation.
All other things being equal, Parasite’s multiple-Oscar win should launch it into another level where the money it will earn may encourage foreign language filmmakers to look at not just their own countries but to use their very personal stories to reach out to people around the world.
This could well be Asia’s moment, and perhaps a leaning into filmmaking which is more about the human condition than toys that transform. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but the heart beats more for heart-beats.
We’ll raise a toast to that.