‘Parasite’: Don’t count out the year’s best film at the 2020 Oscars

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Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” was considered a masterpiece from the minute it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last May. The first South Korean film to win the coveted Palme d’Or, “Parasite” received plenty of buzz around its awards and box-office potential for months after. Shortly after it made its North American debut in the fall, theaters in New York and Los Angeles quickly began selling out. 

And when the 2020 Academy Award nominations were announced Jan. 13, the film received six nominations, including one for best picture, making it the first South Korean film to receive Oscars recognition.

Since then, awards prognosticators have remained relatively divided over the practical chances for “Parasite” to take home top awards during the Academy Awards ceremony Feb. 9. While the film seems to have garnered praise and affection from audiences and academy voters, the academy’s long-standing bias against non-English language films in the best picture race could reemerge Sunday night. In the 92-year history of the Oscars ceremony, no film not in English has ever won best picture.

For example, although Bong has consistently received nominations in the best director race in precursor ceremonies, he has almost always lost out to Sam Mendes for his work on the World War I drama “1917.” Likewise, “1917” was awarded with best picture prizes at the Golden Globes, the British Academy Film Awards and most notably, the Producers Guild of America, or PGA, Awards. In the last decade, the film that has won the top PGA award has gone on to win best picture at the Oscars seven times, making “1917” a near-lock for the win.

The rise of “1917” isn’t the only thing working against “Parasite.” Despite a recent win at the Screen Actors Guild, or SAG, Awards for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture, “Parasite” has no Oscar nominations for acting. Last year, even “Roma,” Alfonso Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical Spanish-language drama, managed to receive two surprise acting nominations for Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira. “Roma” also tied with “The Favourite” for the most-nominated film of the ceremony and was considered a front-runner in the best picture race before the show — and still managed to lose to “Green Book,” the middling comedy-drama with a white savior complex.

“1917” is a far superior and much more deserving best picture winner than “Green Book,” but even with its many technical achievements, it still seems like an underwhelming choice to represent a year in film as nuanced, original and transcendent as 2019. Even though the film currently occupies a relatively distant second place, “Parasite” still has a chance to pull a major upset, however. And this upset, more than any other, would be most welcome and earned.

A darkly comedic thriller, “Parasite” doubles as both a harsh, poignant critique on class and the inevitability of despair in a capitalist system, and a genuinely enjoyable and exhilarating 2 hours at the theater. If there is any film that is deserving of being recognized as the first non-English language best picture winner, it’s this one. Not only does “Parasite” seamlessly incorporate clever dialogue with its brilliantly nuanced social commentary, but it also features an ensemble cast that represents all of its complexities with equal parts emotional depth and liveliness. What’s more, it’s a true genre film, signifying another win for the type of art that the academy regularly overlooks.

“Parasite” has also quickly been capturing major guild awards, signifying a surprising amount of industry support. Along with its SAG Award win for its ensemble cast, the film won the award for Best Edited Feature Film (Dramatic) from the American Cinema Editors’ 70th Annual ACE Eddie Awards, making it only the second Eddie win for a non-English language film. Writers Bong Joon Ho and Han Jin Won also most recently won the Writers Guild of America, or WGA, Award for Best Original Screenplay, making it the first non-English language film to win at the WGA Awards and a major front-runner for the Oscar in the category as well.

Moreover, “Parasite,” distributed in North America by indie production company NEON, benefits from one significant reality that has been a detriment to a number of other deserving films: It’s not produced by a streaming service. The academy’s bias against non-English language films is a major barrier to overcome, but more so is a significant portion of the voting body’s distrust of companies like Netflix — a factor that surely played a role in the best picture loss for Netflix-produced “Roma” last year. 

“Parasite” is poised to make history on Oscars night. As an essential lock for best international feature, it would still be the first South Korean film to win the award. But a film as deeply innovative and, yes, important as this deserves so much more than being recognized just as an international film. “Parasite” was the best film of 2019, and even in a slate of strong best picture contenders, it should be recognized with the top prize of the ceremony.So what happens if things go as expected, with “1917” taking home best picture and “Parasite” ultimately missing out on the win? It would just be the most recent misstep in a long history of the academy’s prioritization of a traditional perspective over films that further the conversation. At least we’ll still be here to complain about it.

Anagha Komaragiri covers film. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @aaanaghaaa.