Parasite has changed the face of the Oscars – but the fight for film industry diversity doesn't end here

Now Parasite has made history by becoming the first foreign-language film to win an Oscar, how can the Academy continue to diversify?

Fatima Sheriff
Monday 10 February 2020 10:28 GMT
Oscars 2020: Parasite wins best picture as first foreign film to do so

As we approach a century of celebrating the Oscars, just a dozen films not in English have been nominated for Best Picture; of these, Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma (2018) was the last to come close. This year, at Cannes, critical acclaim presented a new contender: Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite. Making cinematic history in the early hours of this morning, the South Korean hit defeated 1917 and became the first international feature to win Best Picture (not to mention Best Original Screenplay, International Feature and Director).

How to describe the film? Without spoiling the plot, suffice to say this is a tale of two families who’d otherwise never meet coming into close contact when the poorer cons its way into employment by the richer. Unlike Cuarón’s emotive, semi-autobiographical drama, Parasite cannot be easily categorised. In its sardonic criticism of the rich, Bong’s astonishing seventh feature switches effortlessly between horror, thriller and comedy – genres that have never been as celebrated by the Academy as, say, dramas and biopics. Together, they make Parasite a puzzle box of Shakespearean melodrama and Hitchcockian plot twists, and a powerful portrayal of Korea’s ever-widening class divide.

Like its fellow non-English-language Oscar nominees, Parasite represents how foreign filmmakers operating on another level to their Western counterparts. As Justin Chang, a film writer for The Los Angeles Times, put it: “The Oscars need Parasite more than Parasite needs the Oscars.” Though clearly honoured to be nominated alongside Tarantino and Scorsese (both of whom he saluted in his speech), Bong has previously referred to the Academy Awards as “very local” – and he has a point.

For though the Academy considers itself a global institution, its recent regression from Moonlight (Best Picture, 2017) and The Shape of Water (Best Picture, 2018) to Green Book (Best Picture, 2019) proved that the old American habit of favouring cookie-cutter, white-saviour narratives hadn’t been broken. This makes last night’s win all the more monumental, representing one small step for the film industry, one giant leap for South Korea, a country overdue recognition after The Handmaiden (2017) and Burning (2018).

The insight we get into how Academy members decide their votes is rarely promising. This year alone, there have been stories of Oscar voters disregarding some of their screeners; of favouring familiar faces over individual performances; even of complaints about having to read subtitles. Despite doubling non-white voters this year, white men were still the majority of people who decided this year’s Oscars. It is also hard to imagine a true meritocracy when money continues to buy attention through elaborate “For Your Consideration” campaigns and inexplicably, talented female directors continue to be shunned. Though my personal favourite was Asian-American Lulu Wang (The Farewell), it’s ridiculous that even previous Oscar nominee Greta Gerwig, who gave voters precisely what they’d adore in Little Women, didn’t make the cut for Best Director.

It is remarkable that, in this treacherous landscape, Parasite broke “the 1-inch barrier of subtitles” to catch voters’ attention. Snatching the Palme D’Or at Cannes and giving birth to the #BongHive, audiences couldn’t ignore this masterpiece. After 150 (now 151) awards and universally rave reviews, UK cinemas are already reporting sold-out screens.

Now Parasite has won, how can we keep its momentum going? Hashtags like #OscarsSoWhite have clearly had some impact. As Carey Mulligan suggests, we should also find a way to ensure that voters watch all of their screeners, unable to vote until they have done so. It’s an honour to be a part of such a high-stakes decision-making process, and to make calls without the full picture, reducing the ballot to nothing but a souped-up popularity contest, is disgraceful.

Last night was a win for indigenous (Taika Waititi) and black filmmakers (Hair Love) as well as female composers (Hildur Guðnadóttir). Then again, the acting nominations were shamefully white, with no nominations for Parasite’s incredible cast, and once again, no female directors. Instead of talented women like Gerwig, Wang, Heller, Har’el and Diop coming to collect their awards, they were attracting attention in advertisements for the #giveherabreak campaign, and embroidered on Natalie Portman’s coat. This is good, but not good enough; adding fresh voices to the voting process will amplify new perspectives.

Parasite has a unique electricity, blazing a trail for film investors to take risks on new ideas. Its Oscars sweep is a sign that cinematic excellence is beginning to transcend borders – that at last, the tide is turning in Hollywood.

Fatima Sheriff is a film critic for Screen Queens, which publishes writing on film by women and the LGBTQ+ community.

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