Oscars' International Feature Race: Has 'Parasite' Ushered in a Broader Acceptance of Genre in the Category?

Has Parasite Ushered in a Golden Age of Odd
Illustration by Dominic Bugatto

Bong Joon Ho's 2020 Oscar winner has paved the way for more adventurous entries in the international feature category, long the home of solemn message movies and staid historical dramas.

Parasite has blown open the doors of the international feature category, long thought to be the purview of solemn message movies, to the experimental and the strange. If a movie that shifts in tone among thriller, horror and straight-out farce can win the international feature Oscar, then maybe other overseas films that are even more adventurous with genre have a shot this awards season.

There are a few daringly ambitious ones among this year's contenders, from the satire-slash-mysticism of Poland's Never Gonna Snow Again — featuring Stranger Things actor Alec Utgoff as a Ukrainian masseur in a gated community — to the claustrophobic horror of Beginning, set among religiously persecuted Jehovah's Witnesses in the former Soviet state of Georgia and shot entirely in long, still scenes with nearly no camera movement. Then there's the quirky Greek entry Apples, a fable about a pandemic (one that causes amnesia, not death from COVID-19), and the nonstop madness of India's Jallikattu, a horror-action film about a rogue buffalo that lays waste to a village.

Thematically, there's little to unite the four films, except for a determination to confound expectations. Never Gonna Snow Again begins in magical realist mode. Zhenia (Utgoff) emerges from a dark forest like some mystical creature and makes his way to an ominous Soviet-style building, where he boldly requests residence papers from the reigning bureaucrat. With a Russian incantation and hypnotic wave of his hands, Zhenia puts the bureaucrat to sleep, stamps his own documents and walks away. But when he arrives at the gates of a housing complex outside Warsaw — a Tim Burton-esque landscape of prefabricated suburban hell — the film switches to satire. Zhenia, carrying a massage table and dressed in a low-cut undershirt that makes him look like a circus strongman, enters the homes (and lives) of the self-absorbed privileged. Maria (Maja Ostaszewska) is a frustrated housewife with an absent husband, bratty kids and an unhealthy attraction to this young, mysterious man at her door; a neighbor (Katarzyna Figura) begs Zhenia to massage her beloved bulldogs.

By shifting between genres, Malgorzata Szumowska and co-director Michal Englert maintain a delicious ambiguity. At one point, the film nearly dips into science fiction, suggesting, in flashbacks, that the radiation around Chernobyl may have given Zhenia powers that enable him to hypnotize his clients. "We deliberately kept everything ambiguous," says Szumowska, "a bit like a magic trick. It's up to you to decide what you believe."

Evocative, stunningly shot dream sequences — when the massaged slip into a Zhenia-induced trance — elevate the proceedings above mere comedy. But frequent gags (like the doorbells, each of which plays an ever more ridiculous version of Shostakovich's Waltz 2) burst any sense of art house pretension.

There's also plenty of humor in Christos Nikou's Apples, and the Greek contender shares a fairy-tale quality with Never Gonna Snow Again. The setting, though, is not modern-day, but timeless. Our hero, Aris (Aris Servetalis), wakes up in an analog world — no internet, no mobile phones, not even a CD player — to realize he's forgotten who he is or what's he's supposed to be doing. There's a lot of that going around, and it seems the world has been struck with a pandemic of forgetting. Aris is placed into a program to help him rebuild memories, and its subjects are given instructions to re-create life experiences — riding a bike, crashing a car, having a one-night stand — which they then document with Polaroid cameras.

What follows is a gentle satire on technology — on the "apples" in our pockets that are robbing us of our memory and individual identity — done with an idiosyncratic style evoking Spike Jonze or Charlie Kaufman. "We use elements of analog technology that have almost been forgotten, like Polaroids, hand-written letters, tape recorders," says Nikou. "I believe the extensive use of technology has made our brains lazier because there is no need to save something in your mind anymore. We don't remember the experiences that we had even a few days or a year ago."

In the past, Nikou's offbeat humor and deliberately underplayed approach might have disqualified him in the typically somber international feature category. Not so in the post-Parasite world. There also is precedent here: Nikou helped start the so-called Greek Weird Wave of the mid-2000s, and he served as an assistant director on Yorgos Lanthimos' Dogtooth, still the oddest film to get an Oscar nomination (in 2011) for best international feature.

There's nothing to laugh about in Beginning, but the directorial debut from Georgian filmmaker Déa Kulumbegashvili is arguably the most formally daring and experimental film in this Oscar race. With gorgeous cinematography by Arseni Khachaturan in the squarish 1:33 aspect ratio, Kulumbegashvili frames her actors mostly in medium-long shots and builds the film from a series of single takes, almost all without camera movement or editing of any sort. The approach isolates the characters — members of a community of Jehovah's Witnesses, a persecuted minority in overwhelmingly Orthodox Christian Georgia — from their environment, and the main character, Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili), a Jehovah's Witness questioning her identity and her faith, from the rest of her family. It's rarely a pleasant experience. A graphic rape scene is made all the more horrifying by the divine serenity and detachment of Kulumbegashvili's style.

"When I was thinking about how to shoot it, I wanted the camera to be at a distance where an accidental passerby could be," says the writer-director. "Any closer and you'd start to ask, 'Why is the audience so passive?' If I did that, I'd have to cut the scene in a more conventional way and emphasize specific aspects. But I didn't want to do that. I didn't want to emphasize anything above anything else."

By literally boxing in Yana between her tight frames, the director evokes an ever-present violence and danger lingering just outside our field of view. It's a pattern established in Beginning's five-minute opening shot in which the congregation gathers in its prayer house and is listening to a sermon when, suddenly, a Molotov cocktail is hurled into the church from somewhere off-camera. Beginning can be off-putting, and the 1:33 framing makes it an outlier in this year's Oscar campaign. But it need not rule it out. Voters embraced two Pawel Pawlikowski films, Ida (winner in 2014) and Cold War (a nominee in 2018), both of which used the blockish "Academy ratio," the format the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences established in 1932 as its standard in the pre-widescreen era.

But by far the wildest and, in the context of the international feature category, the weirdest film in the running this year is India's Jallikattu. Alternatively described as an "orgiastic rampage," "kinetic and exhilarating" and "utterly bonkers" by impressed critics, Lijo Jose Pellissery's film has a deceptively simple, B-movie setup: A buffalo set for the slaughterhouse breaks free and rampages through a village. But on this flimsy frame, the director constructs a damning assault on toxic masculinity; as the village men — butchers, outlaws, cops, wife-beaters and corrupt landowners — set out to catch and slaughter the animal, they undermine the effort with their petty jealousies, incompetence and a senseless violence that makes it clear that man is the most savage creature in the wild. It's not subtle, but it is impressive. Pellissery's skill as a director — in combination with cinematographer Girish Gangadharan's opulent, Hieronymus Bosch-like imagery and the equally strange, invasive score from composer Prashant Pillai — makes the film a wild card to watch in the race.

Straight-up genre movies are a rare beast among international feature contenders, but Parasite — and Ang Lee's 2001 winner, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon — demonstrate that Academy voters can be swayed if the director's talent and the movie's themes are sufficiently elevated above its subject matter.

Each film in this quartet enters the Oscar race with strong critical support and impressive festival credentials. Apples and Never Gonna Snow Again premiered in Venice. Beginning swept awards at San Sebastian. Jallikattu was an audience hit at the Toronto, London and Busan fests.

None is the frontrunner yet for best international film. But in the wake of Parasite's historic triumph and in an awards season where none of the normal rules apply, a dark horse — or rampaging buffalo — just might have a chance.

Jan. 8, 3:45 pm PST An earlier version of this story and headline did not clearly convey its intent regarding the state of the international feature Oscar race and Parasite's historic win. This article has been updated throughout.

This story first appeared in a January standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.