Bong Joon-ho and “Parasite” shattered Oscars records. Now what?
If you’ve been vaguely online in the past few weeks, “Parasite” or its absurdly likeable director Bong Joon-ho has likely been brought to your attention in some shape or form.
For those of us doomed to be eternally online, and especially those of us involved in conversations about movies, Bong has been gradually dominating Twitter timelines for the last few months.
“Parasite” is Bong’s latest film, a return to South Korea in both setting and language after a two-movie stint in Hollywood (“Snowpiercer” in 2013 and “Okja” in 2017), where a wider American audience was likely introduced to the director for the first time.
That “Parasite” marks Bong’s return to filming in his native language is significant. It’s the first non-English language film to win Best Picture in Academy history, an honor that capped off an incredible night that already included wins for Best Original Screenplay, Best International Feature Film and Best Director.
For many, the historic night signifies hope that the Academy might be moving in a more inclusive direction as international film picks up steam in American theaters.
“Parasite” has already soared to the fourth-highest U.S. box office gross for an international film. But the movie, and Bong, are creating new conversations too, or at least reviving old ones.
In the wake of the history-making Oscar wins, Twitter was abuzz with discussions about subtitles and the perceived American resistance to films with subtitles, viewed by many as additional “reading” in movies.
Barring legitimate reasons for avoiding them, the sooner this “1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles,” as Bong himself so nicely puts it, is conquered, the sooner more Americans can be exposed to the world-expanding frontier of international film.
It seems American audiences are more ready than ever for international releases. But theaters don’t seem to share the same confidence. Despite a massive expansion of showings over Presidents Day weekend, from 1,060 locations to 2,001, the number pales in comparison to “Sonic the Hedgehog,” which opened in 4,167 theaters.
Comparing “Parasite’s” opening to “Sonic the Hedgehog,” a video game franchise debut coasting on years of fandom and the widely publicized outcry over the titular character’s redesign debacle, isn’t very practical. However, it serves as a useful reminder of the uphill battles still being fought.
Attitudes toward international films often revolve around ignorance. At a rally in Colorado, President Trump commented on the Academy Awards results, saying “And the winner is … a movie from South Korea. What the hell was that about?”
Trump continued with a confusing mention of “Gone With the Wind,” a 1939 Civil War drama known for perpetuating myths about enslaved black contentedness and an honorable Klan during the Reconstruction era, and “Sunset Boulevard,” the 1950 noir film about a fading star desperately clawing onto whatever recognition she can still get, as examples of what seem to be his picks for Best Picture.
It’s Trump’s final remarks on the subject that bring the thoughts of far too many Americans into focus, saying, “I thought it was the best foreign film, right?”
The Best Picture category, and the Oscars themselves, are not, in theory, reserved exclusively for American films. Though the history of category nominees and winners shows a tendency to snub many international films, the Oscars are still intended to represent film as a whole.
The othering of international films, specifically those in a foreign language, tends toward the uglier, more xenophobic side of American culture, and is wholly ignorant of the history of film itself, a mosaic of art and expression that filmmakers the world over can tap into.
“Parasite” and its headline-grabbing wins are, with any luck, not only the first step toward an Oscars that better reflects the true breadth of film, but a greater American public consciousness of what lies outside its borders.
For the Academy, “Parasite’s” wins are an amusing answer to Bong’s own nonchalant response to his nominations just months earlier on the festival circuit, saying “The Oscars are not an international film festival. They’re very local.”