Parasite has made history. Now get ready for the whiplash. Yes, Bong Joon-Ho’s exploration of inequality and class war became the first foreign language film to win the Oscar for Best Picture. But there’s a but.
This is an achievement that’s rightly being celebrated, and it would be difficult to be begrudge the Academy for patting themselves on the back for this one – after all, self-congratulation is a large part of what the Oscars are about. However, the nature of the Academy might mean that this seismic moment for Parasite, and for the type of cinema that it represents, is something short-lived – an exception rather than a new rule.
The Oscars are no stranger to a certain kind of whiplash, oscillating wildly between different types of film, and with it, different types of representation. Seeing Green Book win best picture two years after Moonlight served as a kind of rude awakening. Moonlight was an art film, unusual in its structure, and approaching themes and issues around representation in ways that Best Picture winners rarely do.
It was unlike any previous Best Picture winner. By comparison, Green Book is aesthetically and thematically much safer for the Academy, covering similar ground to previous winners – like Driving Miss Daisy in 1990.
This is a common issue for the Academy. In spite of small gestures being made in the direction of diversity, including an expansion of Academy membership and steps towards greater transparency, there’s always a chance that, post-Parasite, the Oscars will revert to the status quo.
At the beginning of the decade, the thematically deep exploration of war and identity in The Hurt Locker was followed up with the almost aggressively middlebrow, competent but safe The King’s Speech being awarded Best Picture.
And throughout the 90s, the Academy awarded a range of unexpected films, including Silence of the Lambs, Unforgiven, and Schindler’s List, before handing Best Picture to the cozy revisionism of Forrest Gump.
Parasite even being nominated was something of a shock. In 2009, the Best Picture field was expanded, moving from only having five nominees to having at least five and a maximum of ten. This change has been in effect for more than a decade, but other than Parasite there have still only been two foreign language films nominated for the top prize since then: Michael Haneke’s Amour, and Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, the latter losing out to Green Book. Foreign language films in Best Picture remain a rarity.
The approach that the Academy has to foreign language films becomes even more striking when looking beyond Best Picture and considering the performances that get nominated. Even a cursory glance at past acting winners shows that the Oscars prefer a certain kind of performance – prestige films, almost always about white people, often involving a kind of transformation into a historical figure. But now, post-Parasite, it’s time for the Academy to seriously reckon with the question of why it so rarely nominates performances in foreign language films.
Maybe Bong was right about subtitles being a “one-inch tall barrier” – this certainly seems true when looking at this year’s acting nominees, where Antonio Banderas was the only performer to be nominated for a film not in English. A film like Parasite didn’t emerge from a vacuum, and although the film won six Oscars in total, to see none of the performers nominated for awards is particularly striking.
It serves as a stark reminder of the Academy’s very narrow conception of what foreign language films should be. It uses the Oscar for Best International Feature as a way to pay lip service to films from beyond the English language, and beyond Hollywood, but refuses to acknowledge the level of craft and performance that went into the creation of these films.
Not including the breakout success of Parasite, the four other films in competition for Best International Feature were nominated for a total of two awards beyond that category: Banderas’ Best Actor nomination for Pain and Glory, and Honeyland being nominated for Best Documentary. Neither of them won.
This creates a problem for the Academy. Not only is Best International Feature seen as the only category in which films outside of the English language should be considered, but it often means that the film nominated in those categories become the only foreign language films that Academy members actually watch. Celine Sciamma’s masterful Portrait of a Lady on Fire was entirely shut out of the Oscar conversation, and the fact that it wasn’t France’s submission for Best International Feature undoubtedly played a role in this.
The historic nature of Parasite’s victory at the Oscars is something that is rightly being celebrated, a sign that every now and then the Academy chooses something that really might be the best film of the year to win Best Picture, irrespective of the things that normally serve as barriers to a win like that, from the one-inch barrier of subtitles to the fact that Parasite is a rare Best Picture winner that isn’t about white people.
But even amid this triumph, other issues for the Academy are still clearly visible. And while the success of Parasite is an indicator of progress, this time next year, we might be having an entirely different but incredibly familiar conversation.
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