To Sing to an Old Tune: “Parasite” and the Academy Awards

To begin with a scene in Parasite: the Kim siblings, Ki-jeong and Ki-woo, climb up to the gate of the Park family’s mansion, masquerading as two highly in-demand, elite private tutors. Just before Ki-woo rings the doorbell, Ki-jeong stops him, and the two break out into a musical mnemonic that appears rehearsed many times before. The scene, on a surface level, is comedic. I watched Parasite for the first time in a theater in Thailand, and this scene—in its original Korean with English and Thai subtitles—succeeded in inducing laughter from the mostly Thai audience. The scene may resonate in an additional way with some Korean viewers, as the tune the two siblings chant along to references a nationalist Korean song. The siblings assuming fake identities for less-than-noble intentions may be funny enough, but the unexpected pairing of the words to a patriotic tune impacts those who were already aware of the reference differently. 

Comparable instances of cultural connotations can be found throughout the movie, which makes sense, as everything and everyone in the film has to do with Korea. As I watched the film for the first time, however, I almost forgot that this Korean film was also seen by people who, naturally, may not pick up on all the references or wordplay—but we all laughed at the same moments. The subtitles could not and did not convey every cultural connotation and reference, but they conveyed the most important points: when to laugh, when to wince, when to feel fear. There’s obviously the visual part of the film, too. As in many forms of communication, actions can disclose as much as words. In this way, the visual aspect of the film combined with the verbal aspects (spoken and subtitled) to prompt varying interpretations, but ones that still shared a commonality in experience and emotion.

It was perhaps the universality of themes and experiences in Parasite that resonated with audiences of many languages and cultures, leading the film to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and Best Picture at the Academy Awards. That Parasite would win the Palme d’Or was an expectation of many. The Oscar, however, was unprecedented and therefore unexpected, at least in the beginning.

Parasite premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on March 21, 2019. After receiving the Palme d’Or and high acclaim, Parasite went on to be released globally. What makes its global distribution particularly noteworthy is that, unlike Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer or Okja, Parasite was neither co-produced with an American production company, nor was it even in partial English. If Parasite had been produced in the USA, whose entertainment industry is globally influential, the film’s distribution may have advanced more readily and its nomination for Best Picture may have been a more anticipated possibility. Parasite was a likely contender for the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. But for the film to win Best Picture was much less expected, for the simple reason that it was the first time that a foreign-language film won the award. And unlike the Cannes Film Festival, which is an international event, the Academy Awards are dedicated to US-produced films, making Parasite an even more unexpected guest among its English-speaking fellow nominees.

Especially in the recent few years, the Academy Awards have been criticized for the lack of diversity in nominations and award winners. Although the Academy tried to respond to the controversy constructively, some of their attempts were only met with even more criticism. In this case, Parasite was a justifiable win. Its cinematography, story, and evocative mood came across as so refreshing that it couldn’t have not won Best Picture. However, the film’s win amidst the controversies surrounding the Oscars makes it difficult to deem the choice as solely pertinent to the film’s overall quality. Parasite could have won only the foreign film section rather than the main prize, as it did for the Golden Globes and BAFTA, and as foreign-language films have for decades. Of course, Parasite has received praise for its directing, screenplay, and cinematography from critics around the world, but so have other foreign-language films without ever having won Best Picture. Why now?

Parasite winning both Best Picture and Best International Feature Film (the title changed in 2020 from “Best Foreign Language Film”) at the Oscars raises another question regarding the categories of the award ceremony. Does the foreign film category, whatever its official title, still hold as valid if an “international” or “foreign” film also wins the main prize? Why does the foreign film category exist, and why has it existed for so long, if one film can be considered for both the general foreign and the main “non-foreign” categories? It’s understandable for awards to have a foreign film or a foreign-language film section to acknowledge those films produced outside of the countries in which the ceremonies are held. At the Academy Awards in particular, Parasite is not the first foreign film to be nominated for Best Picture, but it was the first to win it, thereby breaking a glass ceiling of sorts. For a film to have jumped out from the foreign category, to what now appears as the “non-foreign” category, however, blurs boundaries that may have been artificial after all.

Realistically, a national film award ceremony may only have so much wiggle room to make space for films from other nations. Not all national film award ceremonies have a foreign film section, and they typically focus only on productions within their own countries. The Academy Awards, however, are a local ceremony televised live in over 225 countries and territories worldwide [*1]. Hollywood has proved its global influence by the sheer number of annual viewers of its award ceremony; on the other hand, the global attention, and the kind of power needed to gain such attention, warrants a responsibility of a comparable scale. The Best Foreign Language Film Award was introduced in the 29th Academy Awards in 1957, and the name has been changed to Best International Feature Film in its 92nd year in 2020. Before the addition of the category, foreign films received Special/Honorary Awards from 1947 to 1955.  The change in name reflects the Academy Awards’ stance regarding the global film industry: “We have noted that the reference to ‘Foreign’ is outdated within the global filmmaking community. We believe that International Feature Film better represents this category, and promotes a positive and inclusive view of filmmaking, and the art of film as a universal experience.” [*2]

But how far should this responsibility extend? Because responsibility is so inextricably intertwined with power, it has the risk of abuse. The question of universality becomes even more difficult to approach due to the localized framework of the Oscars, despite its international influence. The two pivotal events in the 92nd Academy Awards, however, mark the advent of two possible paths they can undertake. With the change in category title to Best International Feature Film and the first non-English film winning Best Picture, the Oscars demonstrated that it does not play the determinant role, at which all non-English films are regarded as “foreign.” The universality of film crosses language barriers; the Academy Awards have agreed, “Film has a language of its own.” [*3]

Although we do not know yet which development the Academy Awards will pursue, the 92nd ceremony has become the stepping-off point at which they acknowledged and demonstrated our present understanding of film. Parasite is said to have made history at the Oscars, but it’s also a point of departure for the future of the film industry. An opportunity has come for the Academy Awards and the unquestioned hierarchy within the global film industry to rethink the exhausted system and for all parties to realize what can and must be done next. It’s about time to stop reciting lyrics to the old tune; it’s about time to create something new altogether.

Notes:

[*1] https://oscar.go.com/news/oscar-news/how-to-watch-the-oscars-livestream-2020

[*2] https://www.oscars.org/news/academy-announces-rules-92nd-oscars

[*3] https://www.screendaily.com/features/oscar-committee-co-chairs-explain-the-international-category-name-change/5144729.article

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