LOS ANGELES, Calif. – Before Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” made history as the first non-English best picture winner in Academy Awards history, he made a modest plea to American moviegoers: Don’t be afraid of subtitles.
Accepting the award for best foreign-language film at the Golden Globes last month, the South Korean filmmaker, who has worked in both Seoul and Hollywood, said: “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”
Reflecting on those words backstage at Sunday’s Oscars while he clutched several of his statuettes, Bong wondered whether those boundaries were already breaking. He had good reason to. In a thrilling and raucously applauded upset, the revolutionary win for “Parasite” ended a more than nine-decade English-language monopoly on cinema’s top prize.
“People were already overcoming these barriers through streaming services, YouTube, social media,” said Bong through his translator. “In the environment that we currently live in, I think we’re all connected. Naturally we will come to a day when a foreign language film or not, it doesn’t really matter.”
Hollywood’s reach has long extended to all corners of the globe, but it has less frequently returned the favor. It’s an exporter, not an importer. Even though the American film industry was built largely by immigrants, on Oscar night, its gaze has usually been turned inward.
But that’s changing, and nothing showed it more than the weekend’s incredible double-feature of winners. Before “Parasite” won over several Oscars, Chinese-American director Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell" triumphed at Saturday’s Film Independent Spirit Awards. Wang's family drama stars an all-Asian cast and was filmed in both Mandarin and English
“The Farewell,” one of the most successful indie films at the box office last year, also won best supporting performance by a female actor, for Chinese actress Zhao Shuzhen. Wang thanked Film Independent for “honoring a woman from China who a lot of people earlier in the year could barely pronounce her name.”
“Parasite” was, in many ways, an extraordinary exception to the norm. The film, a ferocious tragicomedy about a family of grifters who leech onto a wealthy family, inspired nearly universal praise for its cunning construction and for the utter command of Bong, whose last two films (“Okja,” for Netflix; “Snowpiercer,” for The Weinstein Company's Radius label) were largely English. Its mastery was simply too much for voters to deny.
And the affable Bong, a filmmaker whose genre manipulations owe much to the American filmmakers he has frequently praised on his way to Oscar glory, was already widely respected throughout Hollywood — just as he is in Korea, where his films are regularly blockbusters. ("Parasite" has grossed $35.5 million in the United States and Canada but $72 million in South Korea.)
Bong was appreciated, too, for successfully staring down Harvey Weinstein in a battle over the final cut of “Snowpiercer.” When “Parasite” made its debut at the Cannes Film Festival in May, the response was so overwhelming that Alejandro Iñárritu’s jury said its choice for the Palme d’Or was unanimous. The indie distributor Neon, led by Tom Quinn, prepared “Parasite” for an underdog, multi-category Oscar campaign, one aided by a historic win at the Screen Actors Guild Awards.
But “Parasite” is also part of a continuum. It was only the 11th foreign-language film ever nominated for best picture but the third in the last decade, following “Amour” and “Roma,” which last year narrowly missed defeating “Green Book.” The silent 2012 winner “The Artist” was also a French production. And before Bong took best director on Sunday, only two of the last 10 directing winners were American-born.
At a time when the national discourse often signals different attitudes about national borders, the Oscars have pushed in the other direction. On Monday, the Asia Society said of the win for “Parasite”: “Without question, this is a bridge-building moment.” The film’s victory resonated worldwide but especially in its native country. A headline in South Korea’s biggest newspaper, Chosun Ilbo, blared: “Can you believe that ‘Parasite’ won the Academy best picture? It rewrote the Academy’s 92-year-old history.”
Yet some were less enthusiastic about the film academy’s newly global purview. A widely discussed post on Mother Jones on Monday lamented reading film subtitles. Conservative BlazeTV host Jon Miller on Twitter criticized Bong’s acceptance speech, spoken largely in Korean and translated by an interpreter. “These people are the destruction of America,” wrote Miller.
But few films have inspired the kind of celebration that “Parasite” did at the Dolby Theatre, where the crowd greeted the film’s best picture win with thunderous applause. For some, the film’s win was a tremendous relief and a much-needed counterpoint to an Oscars field that was otherwise notably lacking in diversity. “Parasite” also followed the much-debated win last year for “Green Book,” a film many saw as racially retrograde.
“The world is big and it is beautiful and films from everywhere deserve to be on that stage winning the academy’s highest honor,” said Ava DuVernay.
The lack of acting nominations for DuVernay’s “Selma” led, in part, to the #OscarsSoWhite backlash of 2015. Since then, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has worked to diversify its largely white and male ranks, a process that’s led to the induction of many more international members.
“These awards should be global and that happens within the academy,” said Antonio Banderas, a best actor nominee for Pedro Almodóvar's Spanish language drama “Pain & Glory,” on the red carpet before Sunday’s ceremony. “These past two years, joining the academy have been 1,500 members. This is a very powerful injection of international members, which give power to the academy, which pretends to be global.”
The movie business has never been more global. Overseas ticket sales last year exceeded $30 billion for the first time. Hollywood’s largest productions are deliberately crafted to appeal to movie audiences worldwide. China is expected to surpass the U.S. at the world’s top movie market this year.
With America’s moviemaking supremacy increasingly on the wane, the Oscars are likely to only further expand their scope in the future. And not just because of international productions, but homegrown ones, too.
At last month’s Sundance Film Festival, Korean-American filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung's tender autobiographical tale about his upbringing in rural Arkansas, “Minari,” took top honors. Chung said producers of his immigrant drama (made by Brad Pitt's Plan B production company) urged him to prize authenticity over what's typically commercial. “Make this as Korean as possible,” Chung said he was advised. His movie is largely in Korean with, gasp, subtitles.
Backstage at the Oscars, Bong was still staggered by his film's awards when he tried to articulate their significance.
“I don't think it's necessary to separate all the borders and divisions, whether it's Asia, Europe or the U.S.," said Bong. "If we pursue the beauty of cinema and focus on the individual charms that each piece has then, I think, we will naturally overcome these barriers.”
AP Television Producer Marcela Isaza contributed to this report.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP