The most satisfying scene in Parasite may be the one when the ever-resourceful Kim family, having infiltrated the palatial estate of the upper-class Park clan under the pretense of domestic servitude, stretch out like they own the place after being unexpectedly left alone for the weekend. When the cat’s away, the mice will play. The sequence is in some ways the rhetorical centerpiece of Bong Joon-ho’s film, with the characters serving as mutual sounding boards for the screenplay’s themes of class envy and wealth inequality—but it’s pointedly not the climax. When the Parks suddenly decide to return home earlier than expected, the preexisting order has to be restored and the Kims are forced to scuttle off into the night, once more on the outside looking in.
Parasite is a movie of metaphors—“very metaphorical” as Choi Woo-shik’s Ki-woo remarks at one point. It’s also the first foreign-language movie (sorry, “International Feature Film”) to win Best Picture in the 92-year history of the Academy Awards, the crown jewel in a modest but decisive sweep that also saw Bong win prizes for Best Director (over his idol Martin Scorsese, whom he shouted out in a genuinely beautiful and spontaneous acceptance speech) and Best Original Screenplay (with Han Jin-won). So here’s a very metaphorical question for the soju-soaked morning after: Will its victory open the door for future incursions, or will the shift in dynamics be as short-lived as the Kims’ sardonic 1-percenter cosplay?
As I wrote in a piece last week about the history of foreign-language contenders at the Oscars, the Academy’s overwhelming parochialism has crumbled a bit in recent years. Bong’s Best Director victory follows last year’s citation for Alfonso Cuarón for Roma (a movie that is like Parasite’s benign photo-negative), and while The Shape of Water was very much an American movie, Guillermo del Toro is arguably an even better bellwether for Bong than Cuarón: He’s a model transnational filmmaker whose skillful gentrification of genre tropes hints at larger patterns of taste among international distributors and audiences. What unites Bong, Cuarón and del Toro—as well as two-time winner/Rolex salesman Alejandro González Iñárritu (nominated way back in 2001 for Amores Perros) and Canada’s reigning auteur-for-hire Denis Villeneuve (tapped in 2011 for Incendies)—is a shared career path that took them from making local, culturally specific, and palpably handcrafted movies to Hollywood mega-productions, a trajectory that includes a certain level of industry approval.
If Bong is the only one of the group to really clash with American backers, as he did against Harvey Weinstein during the shooting and editing of Snowpiercer, it may be because he’s an inveterate satirist and thus skeptical of power—the rapacious corporate caricatures in Snowpiercer and Okja testify to his pointed perspective. But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t played the game. He happily signed on with Netflix for Okja and campaigned energetically for Parasite pretty much since its Palme d’Or at Cannes. His obvious delight at being the first South Korean filmmaker to break through at the Oscars is irresistible, but a skeptic might wonder about the enthusiasm of any filmmaker—even such an obviously wry, self-styled subversive—desiring membership to a club that’s not always open or accommodating.
Before Parasite won the International Motion Picture award, the Academy unveiled a montage, narrated by Penelope Cruz (who was surely on some level rooting for her pal Pedro Almodóvar for the excellent Pain and Glory), including clips from a century’s worth of foreign cinema—a selection charged with a strange and discomfiting ambivalence. As Cruz name-checked a series of personal favorite directors—“Fellini, Chabrol, Visconti, Campion, Farhadi”—the images displayed a mix of genuine classics of world cinema and a preponderance of Oscar-ratified mush. That sound you heard last night at approximately 10 p.m. ET was of a dozen of the greatest filmmakers who lived rolling in their graves as the montage concluded on a selection from The Untouchables. The Academy’s history of rewarding the best international movies in their own category is spotty at best, and while taste is subjective—like, maybe it doesn’t make you queasy to see Chungking Express side by side with Amélie—the potential of a Parasite paradigm shift opening the floodgates for subtitled mediocrities to complement homegrown ones, all under the guise of celebrating diversity, isn’t exactly stand-up-and-cheer stuff.
My guess is that Parasite will end up as a paradox, a movie that nearly everybody loves but is also an outlier. It’s a genuinely complex satire that either connected with or sailed over the heads or under the radar of a voting body that tends to favor pat, flattering homilies like Green Book. It’s also an international release that didn’t have to flatten out and flatter its American audience to make bank. It’s exciting to think Parasite’s Best Picture win could augur well for other movies like it, but I’m not sure how many other movies there will be like it. There will likely be more non-American imports that are far superior to what the Academy tends to nominate. But being good in the exact, Oscar-friendly ways that Parasite is good—fleet and funny; propulsive and political; thorny and digestible—is rare, even for those who will try to work directly from its template.
Bong is a phenomenal talent, genuinely untouchable as a cerebral yet accessible populist entertainer; imitators are inevitable, and duplication is doubtful. As for those filmmakers with a different sensibility, such a breakthrough is unthinkable. To limit our examples solely to South Korea, an equally superb and only slightly more austere sociological thriller like Lee Chang-dong’s Burning didn’t even score a nomination in the foreign-language category; at the other end of the spectrum, Park Chan-wook’s gorgeous and gonzo The Handmaiden (2016) was far too wild—much wilder, in fact, than Parasite—to earn consideration. If history teaches us anything, it’s that the Academy’s ratio of caution to self-congratulatory risk-taking never really gets too far out of whack. They’re richer for welcoming Bong right through the front door; it sets a positive precedent, and keeps Sam Mendes from having bookend statuettes. And yet if we’re being honest, it’s more likely that the pleasure and satisfaction of this particular telecast will seem all the richer in time for being an anomaly.