South Korea, home to some of the most distinctive cinema of the past two decades, is finally basking in Oscars glory.
Bong Joon Ho’s acclaimed thriller Parasite scored big early in the Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday night, winning in the best original screenplay category. The triumph marked the first time a South Korean film had won an Oscar in any category.
Parasite was widely expected to break some barriers at the Oscars, but not even the most seasoned awards analysts anticipated the full windfall that was coming to Bong and his genre-bending film. Sam Mendes’ technically ambitious single-shot World War I epic 1917 was considered the frontrunner, after it bagged top prizes at the Golden Globes and Producers Guild and Directors Guild awards. But it was Parasite that would go on to dominate the 92nd Academy Awards, winning for best picture, director and international feature film as well.
Parasite is the first-ever non-English-language film to win best picture honors. Bong’s triumph capped off awards season with a powerful moment of inclusion despite the year being otherwise dogged by controversy over the lack of diversity — again — among nominees (18 of the 20 Oscar-nominated actors were white, while no female directors were nominated).
Parasite was the eleventh film not in English to be nominated for best picture, and the sixth to be nominated for both best international feature film and best picture in the same year. Each of the previous five (Z, 1969; Life Is Beautiful, 1998; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000; Amour, 2012; and Roma, 2018), however, won only for best foreign-language film, losing out in the top category. That makes Parasite‘s achievement a watershed moment for how far a film featuring a non-white, non-English-speaking cast can climb within mainstream Hollywood.
As Bong and his co-writer Han Jin-won took the stage to accept the film’s first award for best original screenplay, Bong thanked the Academy for the “great honor.”
“Writing a script is a very lonely process, you never write to represent your country — but this is the very first Oscar for South Korea,” Bong said, lifting the statuette up to a loud round of applause. ?
“I thank my wife for always being an inspiration to me. I thank all the actors who are with me today for bringing this film to life,” he added.
Bong and his regular leading man Song Kang-ho, co-star of Parasite, were some of the most in-demand guests throughout awards season this year. The duo were variously seen hobnobbing with Martin Scorsese, Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Noah Baumbach and other luminaries at industry events in Los Angeles throughout the fall and winter. With seemingly everyone wanting to meet the man who made Parasite, it was clear that Bong and Song had fully arrived in Hollywood.
It’s also very possible that Parasite was aided Sunday night by the Academy’s recent efforts to globally diversity its membership. Since the organization’s concerted push began in 2016, 39 percent of new members have come from outside the U.S., according to a THR analysis.
About midway through Sunday night’s ceremony, Bong was back onstage to accept the prize he was most expected to win — the Oscar for best international feature film.
Noting that the category had changed its name this year from best foreign-language film, the filmmaker said through a translator that he was “so happy to be its first recipient under the new name. I applaud and support the new direction that this change symbolizes.” Still speaking in Korean, Bong gave a shout-out to the crewmembers and castmembers who were in the audience.”
He concluded his speech by saying, in English, “I am ready to drink tonight.”
And yet it wasn’t long before Bong was returning to the stage again — this time to receive best director honors.
“After winning best international feature, I thought I was done for the day and was ready to relax,” he said upon receiving the award, beaming but slightly flustered. “Thank you so much. When I was young and studying cinema, there was a saying that I carved deep into my heart, which is that ‘the most personal is the most creative.'”
The quote happened to be from “our great Martin Scorsese,” he said, to massive applause. Scorsese stood to accept the praise and waved.
Continued Bong, “When I was in school, I studied Martin Scorsese’s films. Just to be nominated was a huge honor. I never thought I would win. When people in the U.S. were not familiar with my films, Quentin [Tarantino] always put my films on his list. He’s here, thank you so much. Quentin, I love you.”
He added, “And Todd [Phillips] and Sam [Mendes], great directors that I admire. If the Academy allows, I would like to get a Texas chainsaw, split the award into five and share it with all of you. Thank you. I will drink until next morning, thank you.”
Prior to this year, no film from South Korea had ever scored a single nomination for an Oscar — not even in the best international feature film category.
Cinephiles the world over had long lamented that fact, given how many revered auteurs South Korea has produced, including the likes of Bong, Park Chan-wook, Lee Chang-dong and many others. It was only last year that the country finally made it onto an Oscars shortlist. Lee’s critically praised thriller Burning was shortlisted for best international feature film but ultimately failed to make the final cut of nominees.
The Parasite team went into Oscars night with several opportunities to make history, having been nominated in six categories: best picture (Bong and Kwak Sin-ae, producers), director (Bong), original screenplay (Bong and Han Jin-won), film editing (Yang Jin-mo), production design (production design: Lee Ha-jun; set decoration: Cho Won-woo) and international feature film.
A genre-defying comedy-drama, Parasite follows a close-knit but impoverished Korean family that runs an elaborate con to infiltrate the lives of a wealthy Seoul family. Surprises are peppered throughout the film’s entertainingly twisty plot, but the story ends on a note of searing social commentary. Parasite‘s cast, led by Korean acting legend Song, made history at the Screen Actors Guild Awards in January, winning the prize for best performance by a cast in a motion picture — an all-time first for a foreign-language film in that category.
Parasite also has become a trailblazer on several other fronts. It won the Cannes Palme d’Or in May and took home best foreign-language film honors at the Golden Globes in January — both firsts for South Korean cinema. Commercially, its success has been similarly astounding. Through Feb. 2, Parasite‘s U.S. gross rested at $33.2 million, one of the best showings of all time for a foreign-language film. Globally, it has earned $163 million, making strong showings in many markets that are typically not nearly so receptive to subtitled Asian cinema.
Reviewing the film last year at Cannes, THR critic Stephen Dalton wrote Parasite “packs a timely punch that will resonate in our financially tough, politically polarized time.”
“This idea of a poor family infiltrating the lives of a rich one is where I first delved in,” Bong told THR in an interview about his development of the film’s themes. “It was more like putting these characters together in a very controlled environment and then watching the chemical reactions unfold.”