Updated: Apr 18, 2020
When Bong Joon-Ho went onstage to accept the Academy Award for Best International Film for Parasite at the 2020 Oscars, he thought his night was done. “I am ready to drink tonight until next morning,” he said gleefully. He had already collected one Oscar before that, for Best Original Screenplay.
But instead, Bong would return to the stage to collect two more trophies: one for Best Director, making him the second Asian to win that award, after Ang Lee—and one for Best Picture. Parasite‘s upset win in the biggest category of the night, over frontrunner 1917, made it the first foreign language film ever to win Best Picture across 92 years of Oscar history.
“I feel like a very opportune moment in history is happening right now,” one of the film’s producers, Kwak Sin-ae, said while accepting the award.
Gone are the days when foreign films only stood a chance of opening to coastal cinephiles. Parasite has shown that foreign language films can be unifying blockbuster events—and its success is proof of the fact that, as director Bong Joon-Ho himself said at the Globes, “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”
Released concurrently with many structural changes—including the advent of streaming and concerted widespread efforts to champion diversity—Parasite’s runaway success could mark a pivotal turning point for foreign language films, and especially Asian ones, in America. “This is a huge breaking of a psychological barrier,” Janet Yang, a veteran Hollywood producer, tells TIME. “This wall we’ve built, in which non-English language movies were limited not just in release or box office but in people’s minds, is being cracked.”
But Parasite’s success also arose from a very specific set of circumstances that may not be easily replicable. And in Korea and elsewhere, a new crop of Asian filmmakers is working hard to ensure that Parasite isn’t just a momentary bout of glory but the start of a new global era.
The marginalization of foreign films
Things were very different for foreign language films at the start of Yang’s multi-decade career. When she arrived in Hollywood in the ’80s, Asian-language films, in particular, weren’t even considered a possibility for mainstream wide release. “They would be marketed in a different way. It was all about getting the Asian audience out, along with the specialty festival crowd,” she says. Indie distributors that are now long gone, like New Yorker Films and Circle Films, funneled international films to theaters like New York’s Film Forum, where they found success with erudite and adventurous audiences.
But these films were mostly low-budget, low-grossing specialty affairs that rarely made a dent at the box office—and received even less recognition from the Academy Awards. While Hollywood likes to think of itself as the center of the film world, 92 years of Oscar nominations support Bong’s claim that the Oscars are “very local.” Just 12 foreign language films have ever been nominated for Best Picture—and most of those films depicted a monumental historical event or figure, whether it be the Holocaust (Life is Beautiful), World War II (Letters from Iwo Jima) or Pablo Neruda (Il Postino). The Academy’s choices pointed to the idea that voters valued the modern lives of people around the world less than their historical or American counterparts.
In 2000, Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon exploded to $128 million at the North American box office, becoming the highest-grossing foreign language film produced overseas at the American box office. The 18th-century martial arts film, the first Asian-language movie and only other one besides Parasite to land a Best Picture nod, showed that audiences would be willing to read subtitles—but also reinforced the idea that the only foreign films worth paying attention to were those that told exotic or historical stories. Over the next few years, other martial arts films like Hero and Kung Fu Hustle successfully replicated Crouching Tiger’s success, but did little to expand the scope of foreign language film in America.
The Korean auteur generation
While Lee was stringing together a run of multilingual epics, a new generation of Korean filmmakers was in the midst of its own golden age. Emboldened by the country’s expanding democratic rights and flush with cash from chaebols—large family-run conglomerates—a group of auteurs led by the trio Bong Joon-Ho, Kim Ji-woon and Park Chan-wook rose in the ’90s with films like The Quiet Family, Joint Security Area and Barking Dogs Never Bite. In 2004, Park’s Oldboy became the first Korean film to win the Grand Prix at Cannes.
But it was Bong, in particular, who would chart a path toward international stardom through a set of savvy strategic choices. “He’s able to think 10 years ahead—he understands the industry very, very well,” Jason Bechervaise, an entertainment professor at Korea Soongsil Cyber University who also wrote a Ph.D. thesis on Bong’s work, told TIME. In 2013, Bong crossed over to Hollywood with Snowpiercer, his first English-language film, which raised eyebrows for being one of the first films to come to streaming soon after theatrical release. In 2017, his bilingual film Okja caused a firestorm at Cannes when audience members objected to the inclusion of a Netflix production in the festival.
“This chaos is all good news for Bong because they talk about him, and more people become aware of who he is,” Bechervaise says. Having gained an international profile—and many high profile friends and admirers like Tilda Swinton and Quentin Tarantino—Bong ensured that when he returned to Korea to make a fully foreign language film, the world would still be paying attention.
Streaming and social media rewrite the rules
At the same time, American audiences were also seeing more faces of color on their screens thanks to the erosion of traditional gatekeepers in film and television. In 2015 and 2016, #OscarsSoWhite exploded on Twitter after two consecutive years of all-white acting nominees, leading the Academy to announce an initiative to double their number of female and minority members by 2020. In 2018 and 2019, social media campaigns helped lift Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians to huge box office returns—and even non-blockbusters like Roma (in Spanish) and The Farewell (in Mandarin and English) fared better than expected thanks to insistent support from communities of color.
All of these successes showed production companies and distributors that increased representation was, if nothing else, a sensible economic move. It was in this climate that the distributor Neon came to the fore as a rising powerhouse that invested both in English and non-English films. In 2019, they released four well-received foreign language films, including Parasite, Honeyland and Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
While traditional film production companies and distributors warmed to a broader range of releases, they also received a push from streaming services, whose potential subscribers could come from anywhere in the world. In 2016, Netflix put a stake down in South Korea, spearheading not just Okja but the zombie series Kingdom and the romantic teen drama Love Alarm. Their algorithm placed Okja in the same ‘taste cluster’ as Mad Men—meaning that viewers with no experience with foreign language films might still be prompted to watch it, and give it a chance from the comfort of their couch. In the coming years, the Japanese reality show Terrace House and the Spanish language drama Narcos: Mexico would become global phenomena.
In May, Parasite opened at Cannes to an eight-minute standing ovation, eventually winning the festival’s top prize. In October, the film opened in the U.S.—and thanks to rapturous reviews, word-of-mouth campaigns that included the efforts of Gold House—an Asian American organization that had formed in 2018 to boost Crazy Rich Asians at the box office—and all the factors mentioned above, Parasite claimed the biggest-ever opening for an international film in the U.S.
Of course, it was not merely these external factors that drove Parasite’s success, but the quality of the film itself. While the movie is distinctly Korean in its approach to horror and humor, its incisive exploration of inequality hit the zeitgeist at the exact right moment. “Uneven distribution of wealth is a disease we all live with, wherever you are,” Suk-Young Kim, a theater and performance studies professor at UCLA, tells TIME. “It’s something we can all relate to.” This subject material elevated the film from a local Korean story into a larger wave of movies exploring the same subject—from Burning to Us to Joker.
And it can’t have hurt that the movie was shot in a rising center of culture and fashion thanks to the increasing dominance of K-pop. “Seoul is a cultural hub: a fashionable place that more people want to visit and know about,” Kim says.
Thanks to a shrewd rollout from Neon, Parasite continued to excel at the box office throughout the fall and gain momentum into awards season. The awards season success of Roma the year before had eased the path, as had the the increased diversity within the ranks of the Academy. Since 2015, the percentage of female Academy voters has risen from 25 to 32 percent, while the number of minorities has doubled from 8 to a still paltry 16 percent. This year, the invitees hailed from 59 countries.
But the movie’s momentum was also carried by Bong Joon-Ho who led the way as a witty and charismatic presence on the circuit. He quickly became the main event at many Oscars parties and generated headlines for his extremely quotable speeches. “It’s impossible not to be charmed by him, for sure,” Yang says.
In January, Parasite became the first foreign language film to ever win the SAG Award for best cast of a motion picture. Backstage, Choi Woo-shik, who plays Ki-woo, used the platform to open the door for the next generation. “Other than us, there are so many legends out there in foreign countries,” he said. “I really truly hope that after this moment, maybe next year, we can see more foreign-language films and Asian films.”
While the SAG Awards were an exciting bit of recognition, the Oscars were another matter. It was widely expected that Parasite would fall to the heavily favored 1917, meaning that the first non-English Best Picture winner would have to wait at least another year. But Parasite pulled out a stunning upset, much to delight of many online—who christened themselves the #BongHive—and the celebrities in the audience. When the producers tried to turn the lights out on a show that ran half an hour overtime, the crowd roared at them to let Parasite’s team finish.
“Milestone and motivation”
But Parasite’s best picture win does not guarantee lasting change. The Korean film industry has recently become stagnant—with admissions plateauing since 2013—and top-heavy, with many blockbusters taking up an increasing amount of space at theaters. (Last year, a Korean Film Council study said that on any given day, 67.5% of all screenings would be occupied by the three most screened films).
And while any movie by Bong, Park and Kim attracts widespread interest, the rest of the country’s filmmakers are far less known around the world. “The industry, globally at least, is heavily reliant on the auteurs,” Bechervaise says. He worries that the circumstances that led to their creative rise are not replicable—and that young filmmakers will not only have to contend with the trio’s long shadow, but competition from the onslaught of global content arriving in Korea thanks to streaming services.
But for some Korean filmmakers, Parasite’s success is already causing a trickle-down effect. At the 2020 International Film Festival Rotterdam last week, the director Kim Yong-hoon noticed a change in the way people were looking at his new film Beasts Clawing at Straws. “I definitely felt this increased global interest, not only from the festival programmer but from the audience,” he wrote in an email to TIME through a translator. “These international film industry people now notice that there are plenty of good filmmakers in Korea.”
Beasts Clawing at Straws won the festival’s special jury award, while another Korean film, Yoon Dan-bi’s Moving On, won the Bright Future prize. At Sundance, Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, which is set in Arkansas but spoken mostly in Korean, made a big splash, winning the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize for the dramatic category. The Steven Yuen-led film, produced by Brad Pitt’s company Plan B Entertainment, will be distributed by A24, which successfully launched movies like Moonlight and Lady Bird.
So anyone hoping to find the next Parasite won’t have to look far. The Truth, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s first non-Japanese-language film, stars two French legends in Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche and arrives in March. On streaming, Alan Yang’s Tigertail, which is mostly delivered in different Chinese dialects, will arrive on Netflix, while an adaptation of Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko in Japanese and Korean is in the works at Apple. Thanks to Parasite, they all have the opportunity to make an impact not just at Film Forum but across the United States and the world.
“I think Parasite could be a milestone and at the same time a motivation to the next generation filmmakers,” Kim Yong-hoon says. “This is a huge opportunity.”