Something just bust out of the basement. Stunning best picture Oscar win for ‘Parasite’ – the very first for a film wholly not in the English tongue – has finally cracked wide open the ghetto of “foreign-language” cinema, that most patronizing and LA-centric of designations.
Past best picture winners ‘The Last Emperor’ (1988) and ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ (2009) both had large chunks of their dialogue in a foreign language, but they were also both to varying degrees products of the Hollywood system. ‘The Artist’ (2012) was French but largely mute, and it swore firm allegiance to Tinseltown. ‘Parasite’ – with which Bong Joon-ho returned to South Korea after two English-language films – is a pure outsider to the American studio cabal. It has run with easy confidence through awards season to snatch the biggest prize of all in a potentially paradigm-shifting win.
Huge though this undoubtedly is for Bong, it could be even bigger for the Oscars. Fully embracing the widest possible definition of cinema could be a chance for the awards to reclaim the mainstream relevancy the awards have surrendered over the last 20 years. Bong hit the nail on the head when he said: “The Oscars are not an international film festival. They’re very local.” But becoming a ceremony for all cinema, and not just that in the English language, could restore the Oscars’ primacy. This would mean radical change, though: Abolishing the international feature film category – as the foreign-language gong was renamed this year – and trying to increase the representation of non-US work in all other categories.
Hollywood may still be top dog of global cinema, but the truth is that the Oscars no longer have the allure they once did. They have become disconnected from the American mainstream, dominated by specialty films that almost seem purpose-made for “awards consideration”. In the last 15 years, only five best picture winners have grossed more than $100m domestically (and then only just a bit over): ‘Argo’, ‘The King’s Speech’, ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, ‘The Departed’ and ‘Million Dollar Baby’. And with the odd exception, such as ‘Moonlight’, an air of cultural irrelevancy has lingered about recent winners. The Oscars have become a millstone to host, and non-essential to watch.
‘Parasite’ would be the perfect film to usher in a new populist era. It is a classically structured picture, the most mainstream of Bong’s career to date (apart, perhaps, from ‘The Host’), spun around a tight premise: Working-class clowns usurp a rich family’s lifestyle by posing as high-class tutors. This is the kind of high-concept sell, fueled with contemporary resonance, on which the Hollywood studios used to rely on to hawk original ideas. That was before the industry sold its soul to intellectual property and franchising; the very thing that made the Oscars, and the kind of film garlanded there, marginal.
American films would still dominate an internationalized Oscars, as they do the global box office. But surely the sense of excitement would be heightened if other players were more readily admitted to the top table. Bong’s underdog story has enlivened this year’s race – so imagine how opening up to the best of Bollywood, the rising Chinese industry, the local powerhouse Japanese and Turkish outfits, Nollywood and beyond, would adrenalize things further. Audiences in countries with Oscar runners would be so much more invested – no longer merely passive “markets” for Hollywood product, but participants in the mainstream conversation. Language should matter less in this day and age, as Bong pointed out with typical succinctness in his comment about the “one-inch high barrier of subtitles”. Only the Anglophone markets cling to this prejudice.
With the Academy already struggling with the issue of diversity, it is hard to see how this internationalization could be achieved in terms of the voter base. It would mean total upheaval. Chances are that ‘Parasite’ is a one-off, and there is little will to disperse influence internationally. But this would only reflect where Hollywood’s true constituency now lies – its overseas box-office take has steadily risen from 50 percent in 2000 to a record high of 73 percent last year. The Hollywood presence has influenced and energized filmmakers everywhere, many of whom – like Bong – show truer appreciation of its old storytelling ideals and bring a little something of their own to the party. His triumph should be the first of many for the global brigade.
* Phil Hoad is a feature writer and critic based in the south of France, specializing in cinema and urbanism. This article was originally published in the Guardian.