The talking point of the 2020 Academy Awards on Feb. 9 was not, as expected, Joaquin Phoenix’s best actor acceptance speech, or Eminem’s surprise performance, though those were highlights.
It was this year’s best picture winner, “Parasite,” that left Americans reeling — presumably because of our bad track record when it comes to recognizing foreign films at the Oscars. “Parasite” was the first South Korean film ever to claim the best picture statuette in its native language.
“In a post-“Parasite” world, the best-picture winner can come from anywhere,” claimed a New York Times article Sunday night. And yet, there’s something unsettling about the suggestion that before this particular South Korean film won the big award, we were incapable of recognizing international films as a whole.
In fact, “Parasite” was the most recent in a slew of films directed by Bong Joon Ho, one of the most notable directors of the 21st century. His other films “Snowpiercer” and “Okja” have screened at the Cannes Film Festival and he is recognized for his unique brand of black comedy, through which he addresses important social issues (namely, “Parasite” touches on class conflict, and “Snowpiercer” brings up climate change).
South Korea overall has produced globally significant films for decades. The golden age of Korean cinema in the mid-20th century saw the release of horror-thriller “The Housemaid” and tragedy “Obaltan,” widely regarded as the two best South Korean films of all time. The industry saw a falling-off in the late 20th century and then a resurgence in the past 30 years, shedding light on the genius of Bong and his contemporaries. Chan-wook Park, for instance, directed “The Vengeance Trilogy” and is noted for his films’ frequent discussion of heavy subjects. Others like Kim Ki-duk and Lee Chang-dong are known for their films “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring” and “Burning,” respectively. This is to say that there’s no shortage of significant, recent projects emerging out of the Korean film scene.
Often, Americans cite “inaccessibility” as a reason for not watching international films. But the landscapes of streaming movies and even theaters are changing. “Parasite” got a theatrical release in America, and Netflix has entered South Korea as a distributor and film producer in hopes of providing new content to American audiences.
Despite this Best Picture win for Bong, the Academy continues to display a trend of foreign films receiving Oscar nominations but the actors themselves not receiving any. In fact, other than Taika Waititi’s and Bong’s Oscars, this year’s ceremony felt like a haunting callback to 2015’s “#OscarsSoWhite” controversy.
So why watch international (and specifically South Korean) cinema? Not only can we familiarize ourselves with global issues seen through the lenses of actors and directors from different cultures, but frankly, these movies are just… good. We don’t need to use their existence as a sort of diversity token in our awards ceremonies, we need to watch them and enjoy them for their pertinent social themes and overall quality.
Instead of patting ourselves on the back for finally giving the best picture Oscar to a film in a language other than English, it’s time to move into the future of the global film world by sharing the spotlight with the South Korean film industry and others.