Marking the end of the major awards season for films, the Oscars have been a cornerstone of cinema since its inception. The award ceremony is a glamorous event that features the industry’s most coveted prizes. Best picture, the last category to be announced at the ceremony, holds the highest honour and anticipation.
With the nominations for the show announced a couple of weeks ago, South Korean film Parasite directed by Bong Joon-Ho, became the 12th “foreign language” film to ever compete for the top prize. In the Oscar’s 92 years of running, the award for best picture has only been awarded to English language films (and one no language film, The Artist) meaning if Parasite were to win, history would be made— and rightfully so.
A social satire laced with piercing originality, Parasite exudes mastery in all aspects of film. With the quality of direction, acting, editing and production design, it’s easy to see why it’s been both a major commercial success and one of the most talked about movies of the year. There is no doubt (at least in my mind) that it’s deserving of the accolade. So, the question here isn’t should Parasite win Best Picture but rather, is it even possible?
When discussing Oscar predictions, achievements gained at prior award shows generally serve as the baseline for scoping out top contenders. Luckily for Parasite, it’s been having quite the triumphant run. Starting off strong with securing the Palme D’or at the esteemed Cannes Film Festival, the film has also gone on to win Best Foreign Picture at the Golden Globes and more notably snagged Best Ensemble Cast at the more recent Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards. As the first ever foreign language film to receive SAG’s top honour, such acclaim is a remarkable accomplishment for a small South Korean feature. But even with these awards under its belt, it’s highly unlikely that Parasite will walk away with the Academy’s top prize.
The biggest obstacle between Parasite and Best Picture is with the Academy itself. Although they claim to award the “highest honors in filmmaking,” it has never been like that at all. The Oscars have never solely been about recognizing the quality of films, and time and time again, they showcase favoritism towards stories that revolve around America and American hardships like war (The Hurt Locker, The English Patient, Argo), show business (Birdman, Chicago) and most commonly, the white male experience (Forrest Gump, The Departed, American Beauty). Although there have been some exceptions like Moonlight and The Shape of Water, the formula generally persists.
Fueled by deep ethnocentrism and a disregard for much of “world” cinema, it’s no question that the Oscars are biased and quite frankly outdated for today’s diverse film landscape. Much of this bias and ethnocentrism comes down to the voting body that remains predominantly consistent with older, white men. These voters are not representative of all that cinema has to offer and there is no reason to believe that they will stop praising the same types of movies they have awarded in the past.
What’s even worse, perhaps, is the fact that once a film has been nominated for Best Picture, Academy members are under no obligation to watch the entire catalog before finalizing their top picks. The system runs on integrity, meaning that there is a good chance that many members could have casted ballots without having seen Parasite at all. The aversion for non-English speaking films in the Western world should not be overlooked and something as simple as the Korean dialogue could be enough to pull the film out of the race. If anything, Parasite will likely win best foreign film as expected, and the award for best picture will either go to Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, a movie literally about old-school American Hollywood, or Mendes’ 1917, yet another American war film.
Besides, why nominate Parasite in both the foreign feature category and best picture when so many other stunning pieces of international work like Portrait of a Lady on Fire failed to be nominated at all? Best foreign picture, as an awards category can almost be viewed as backhanded in its nature because what purpose does it serve other than to separate worthy and wonderfully conceived foreign features from the American/English language films that are always bound to win the top prize?
When accepting his award at the Globes for Best Foreign Picture, Bong Joon-Ho said it best: “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” An unapologetic message targeting the laziness of the English-speaking world, maybe somewhere down the line the Academy will take his words into consideration. For Parasite to stand a chance, Hollywood’s belief systems would have to be flipped upside down, but for now, it looks like we’re stuck with what we got.
Photo by CJ Entertainment.