Last Sunday, the South Korean film “Parasite” made history as the first foreign language film to take home the Academy Award for Best Picture. The underdog darling of this year’s awards season,“Parasite” won in the international film categories at the Golden Globes, the BAFTA awards, and even at the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast. The film’s director, Bong Joon-ho, apart from becoming an internet darling with his affable personality and quirky quips, then went on to win three Oscars—not including Best International Feature Film, which is credited to the country and not the film maker—in one night, going as far as to apologize to the Oscars engravers for the work that he put them through.
The monumental rise of “Parasite” signals a fundamental change in the way that western institutions, like the Academy, celebrate movies. Had someone told me last year that a South Korean dark comedy about class would take home four Oscars, including Best Picture, I and many others would have dismissed the notion immediately. This is not to say that “Parasite” wasn’t a great movie; many critics and moviegoers, including myself, thought that “Parasite” really was this year’s best movie, and one of the best movies of recent times.
Yet, the Academy’s Best Picture isn’t always awarded to what a consensus of people think is actually the best movie of the year. It’s a complicated political process that rewards industry expertise, precedent set by other award shows, and general likability. The very fact that “Parasite” wasn’t in English and that it was made entirely in an Asian country, with an entirely non-white cast, led many to dismiss it as a viable contender in the first place—especially coming off of last year’s Oscars, in which Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma,” filmed in Spanish and Mixtec, was widely believed to be snubbed for the big prize.
Bong Joon-ho might have put it best, as he stated in an interview last October, “The Oscars are not an international film festival. They’re very local.” And he is largely right. No one has ever expected the Oscars to be compared to a competition such as the Cannes Film Festival, which intentionally celebrates international films. Indicative of the Oscar’s failure as a global film festival, only two movies have gone on to win both Best Picture and Cannes’ Palme d’Or: the 1955 film “Marty,” and “Parasite.”
Though the Oscars have seen a handful of foreign darlings pick up nominations outside of Best Foreign Language Film—which was recently renamed to Best International Feature Film—the Academy has historically neglected international cinema. Perhaps this is a product of English-speaking audience’s general apprehension towards subtitles, a problem which Bong himself noted in his Golden Globe speech, calling them a “one-inch-tall barrier.” This limits a foreign-language movie’s ability to satiate an unwritten requirement for Oscar contention: popular and critical appeal. Without exposure to American audiences and critics, it’s surely difficult for Academy voters to achieve unanimity and rally behind a film through the nomination process.
For “Parasite,” a popular theatrical run in markets outside of South Korea was one of the building blocks for its award season triumphs, emblematic of its overall quality and widely resonant themes. Bong, who previously enjoyed some name recognition internationally, can also be credited—showing up to award functions and charming the pants off of Hollywood’s elite. In a political sense, “Parasite” ticked all of the right boxes to sway the Academy in their direction.
That being said, this discussion obfuscates the fundamental contradiction that underlies the relationship between the Oscars and the non-English speaking world; one that “Parasite” needed to overcome. Is the Academy Awards just a local, American film festival?
Most countries with robust film industries have awards dedicated to achievement in best local film. The César Awards recognizes achievements in French cinema, while India’s national film awards are annually presented by the President of India. Both are examples— among many—of award shows that are designed to explicitly recognize films made in a given country. Though the BAFTAs, Britain’s most coveted film award, recognizes and often awards movies made outside of the United Kingdom, it retains some semblance of national identity through the category of Outstanding British Film.
This brings us back to the Oscars, an institution that predominantly celebrates films made right in its backyard. The Academy is distinct, as it has no prescribed rules about the origin or language in determining Best Picture, or many of its other top awards. This is unlike the Golden Globes, in which the two Best Motion Picture awards are reserved for films that are more than 50% in English. Unlike other nation’s top film awards, the Academy’s mission statement does not seek to recognize American or English-speaking films, but rather, strives to “recognize and uphold excellence” in filmmaking. The rules that govern eligibility for awards bares no mention of the word “American,” and we certainly do not expect Donald Trump to award Best Picture year after year—though it would be hilarious to see him try.
Some decried the victory of “Parasite” as a blatantly liberal attempt for the Academy—and by extension, Hollywood—to celebrate diversity. Some, like BlazeTV host Jon Miller, said it was part of “the destruction of America.” Though these sentiments have been rightfully rejected by much of the American public, it reflects a myopia that has consistently governed the Academy’s choices since its inception. The primacy of American films in the Academy Awards—and albeit, a handful of British ones too—reflects not codified eligibility requirements or a patriotic vision, but an ingrained and persistent timidity to recognize outstanding international films. The Academy’s eligibility requirements mean that for change to occur, the written rules do not need to change; the redefinition of the Oscars comes through the composition of and votes from the Academy’s membership base.
This year, the Academy’s international membership is higher than it’s ever been, with 20% of its members hailing from abroad. We live in a time where foreign films are not abstract and distant, but are readily available at the click of a button. Though the success of “Parasite” signals greater accessibility, it also reflects a reorientation in how our domestic movie industry thinks about the world.
In what was the most heartwarming speech of the night, Bong accepted the Best Director award by invoking a quote from fellow nominee Martin Scorsese, recognizing the profound influence Scorsese had on him as a film student in South Korea. This was a touching moment that also encapsulates the relationship between Hollywood and the outside world. American films dominate global box office revenue, and the body of work left by American directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick, and Quentin Tarantino continue to shape film globally. But this relationship isn’t one-way; it’s symbiotic. The American film industry wouldn’t be where it is today without the legacy of the likes of Jean-Luc Godard, Akira Kurosawa, or Federico Fellini—directors who were awarded only honorary Oscars, and in the case of Fellini, a handful of Best Foreign Language Film statuettes.
There is no perfect way to run an award show. In many ways, the Academy appears to be laughably obstinate, as issues regarding diversity obviously still abound. But the success of “Parasite” points to a rightful change of the voters’ collective mindset. Film’s highest award should be open to all, not a select few of the certain nationalities or language. The film’s epic night wasn’t just a rejection of the Academy’s parochial tendencies; it was the sledgehammer blow that cinema needed.
Tobias Wertime can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.