Update: Parasite took home an amazing — and beyond deserved — four Academy Awards at the Oscars. It is the first non-English language film to win Best Picture, and its four wins tie Parasite for the most Oscars won by a foreign film in a night. Bong Joon-Ho won Best Director and called for the audience to celebrate the cast, which was snubbed in the acting categories. The film’s other two awards were Best International Feature Film and Best Original Screenplay. And, to quote the director: “I’m ready to drink tonight.”
— The Academy (@TheAcademy) February 10, 2020
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With just a few days to go until the 92nd Academy Awards, speculation about which movie will take home the coveted Best Picture prize is at an all-time high. Ten films are nominated, but in recent weeks the race has really narrowed down to two front-runners: Sam Mendes’ World War I epic 1917, and Bong Joon-ho’s South Korean class thriller Parasite, also in the running for Best International Film. But which is more likely to win?
1917, a late December entry to awards season, has won four major guild awards, including the Producers Guild of America Award for Best Theatrical Motion Picture, and the Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directing — Feature Film. In addition, it took home Best Motion Picture: Drama at the Golden Globes, and the Best Film Award at the BAFTAs over the weekend. Objectively, the movie has earned every win necessary to nearly guarantee an award on Sunday.
Meanwhile, Parasite has won more overall awards, many of which hold the extra significance of having made history. Last May, it became the first Korean film to take home the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Earlier this month, it earned a standing ovation and won Best Ensemble Cast at the Screen Actors Guild Awards (becoming the first non-English film to do so), and Best Original Screenplay at the Writers’ Guild Awards. It’s also grossed a remarkable $33.2 million in the United States, a record-breaking number for a foreign film, and a testament to its genuine popularity among American audiences.
It’s not the first time that a foreign-language film has been nominated in those two categories. Parasite marks the eleventh movie to hold that honor, joining Grande Illusion (1938, France),
Z (1969, Algeria), The Emigrants (1972, Sweden), Cries and Whispers (1973, Sweden), Il Postino (1995, Italy), Life Is Beautiful (1998, Italy), Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000, Taiwan), Letters From Iwo Jima (2006, United States, but primarily in Japanese), Amour (2012, Austria), and Roma (2018, Mexico).
What’s different about this year? First off, the categories themselves. In April, the Academy announced that it was changing the name of the category from Best Foreign-Language Film to Best International Feature Film in an effort to be more inclusive.
“We have noted that the reference to ‘Foreign’ is outdated within the global filmmaking community,” Larry Karaszewski and Diane Weyermann, co-chairs of the International Feature Film Committee, said in a press release announcing the change. “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.”
But despite the name-change, the rules have remained exactly the same, which has already led to controversy. In November, Nigeria’s first submission to the Oscars was disqualified because most of the dialogue was in English, the country’s official language, leading to widespread discussion over what really defines an “international film.” Is 1917 — written, directed and starring British people — an international film? Is 2011 Best Picture winner The King’s Speech? What about The Artist, the French-produced but silent winner of 2012? Or do they not count, because they fit into the mold of what we consider a mainstream Oscar film? If one follows the Academy’s own guidelines, why shouldn’t a film like Genevieve Nnaji’s Lionheart compete alongside other English-language films rather than as an “international” entry?
As for inclusion, well, that too has been controversial. No other film — except perhaps Roma — has come this close to possibly winning both Best International Feature Film and Best Picture simultaneously. And it’s making some people in the industry uncomfortable. In an op/ed at the San Francisco Chronicle, critic Mick Lasalle argued that making foreign-language films eligible for both awards gives them an advantage over English-language films, which can only win once. A brutally honest Academy voter, speaking to the Hollywood Reporter under condition of anonymity, put it more bluntly: “Parasite is beautifully done, but it didn’t hold up the second time, and I don’t think foreign films should be nominated with the regular films.”
The idea that “regular films” are in English automatically marginalizes foreign-languge films as “other.” And that brings me to the biggest difference between Parasite and the films mentioned above. Unlike the majority of previous non-English language films nominated for Best Picture (Roma, Z, and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon being notable exceptions), its protagonists aren’t white. The Academy has been infamously slow to adapt with a changing Hollywood landscape. All but one — Cynthia Erivo, nominated for Harriet — of the nominees in acting categories is white. Parasite’s SAG win was that much more significant because it recognized the talent of its cast, which has largely been left out of the acting awards conversation.
The subtext here is that it’s all well and good for non-English movies with non-white casts to win in the category that is reserved for them. It’s even fine for individual foreign directors to win, like Alfonso Cuarón did in 2019 for Roma, although that category has a different barrier to entry: gender. But to win against big American films, with majority white actors? That challenges the status quo, something Academy members, and the larger Hollywood film establishment, wants to avoid at all costs.
Still, those objections lose steam when one considers that no non-English language film has ever won Best Picture — Parasite would be the first. Far from being at an advantage, films nominated in the Best International Feature Film category face an extra barrier to entry. The fact that Parasite has managed to get this far is a testament to just how good it really is.
A Best Picture win for Parasite, a movie that celebrates society’s underdogs, against establishment Goliaths like Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time…in Hollywood, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, or to a lesser degree, 1917, smacks of poetic justice. The question remains whether the Academy is in the mood to root for David.
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