I might have predicted it, but I still can't quite believe it. Parasite, the South Korean satirical thriller, has become the first film in a foreign language to win best picture at the Academy Awards.

A 92-year Oscar streak has been broken, an unspoken rule in Hollywood upended. A town renowned for self-obsession has done the unthinkable, and looked outwards.

With its name now etched on four statuettes - best director, best original screenplay and, naturally, best international feature are the other three - Parasite has joined Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander and Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as one of the most-rewarded foreign-language films in Oscar history.


And yet, even those two films weren't quite well-loved enough by the Academy to win the evening outright. But Bong Joon-ho's film was, and did - and in the face of some exceedingly macho Oscar bait.

The widely touted front-runner was Sam Mendes's 1917, a First World War film whose formulaic virtuosity might as well have been specifically designed to win awards. (Which it had done, repeatedly, at the Baftas the previous weekend.)

Bong Joon-Ho. Photo / AP
Bong Joon-Ho. Photo / AP

Then there was Todd Phillips's comic-book adaptation Joker - a tale of young white male rage that carried itself, very self-consciously, as a film for our moment. Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood and Martin Scorsese's The Irishman could hardly be accused of doing that - their significant pleasures were primarily retro - but those films' shared interest in leathery white machismo may no longer be a best picture golden ticket.

Why did Parasite win? The primary reason is that it is a very good film, but an enabling factor was doubtless the recent broadening of the gender, age and ethnic diversity of the Academy voters.

Since the #OscarsSoWhite backlash in 2015 (where all 20 of the acting nominations went to performers of Caucasian descent), the Academy has been on a recruiting spree to ensure that the industry body better reflects the business at large. Progress has been slow but steady: in 2015, women made up 25 per cent of all voters; this year it was 32. In the same time frame, the percentage of non-white voters has doubled, from eight to 16. Last year's intake hailed from 59 countries.

The percentage of non-Caucasian voters has gone from 6 per cent to 15 per cent since 2012. There've been earlier signs that tastes were shifting. Moonlight, the tale of an African American man coming to terms with his homosexuality, won in 2017.

Green Book, the (true-ish) story of pianist Don Shirley, won last year, although was criticised for telling a black man's tale through a white man's eyes (those of his driver). But if Green Book arguably benefited from a cynical attempt to make racism palatable to the more reactionary Academy voter, Parasite has won on its own merits.

Bong Joon Ho, left, and Song Kang-Ho celebrate before going on stage to accept the award for best picture at the Oscars. Photo / AP
Bong Joon Ho, left, and Song Kang-Ho celebrate before going on stage to accept the award for best picture at the Oscars. Photo / AP

It is a hair-raisingly funny and ingenious thriller, stitched through with themes of real social import, of the type Hollywood itself used to excel at, but made very far from Hollywood indeed. And to vote for it is to acknowledge on some level that the world-renowned hometown of the movies may no longer be the centre of the cinematic universe.


A South-Korean - and already leading auteur in his own country - has taken the influence of Hollywood, mixed it with his own idiosyncratic sensibility, and created something wholly original as a result. In a way, the win can be seen as a culmination of global cinema.

Bong himself acknowledged his creative and professional debt to two Hollywood masters while accepting the award for best director, in a speech that will surely become the definitive 2020 Oscars Moment.

"When I was young and studying cinema," he said, via his redoubtable translator Sharon Choi, "there was a saying that I carved deep into my heart, which is that 'The most personal is the most creative'." Then he added in English himself: "That quote is from our great Martin Scorsese."

Scorsese, who was nominated for The Irishman, looked genuinely touched; the room around him erupted and rose to its feet. (This wasn't extem-porised flattery; Bong has often spoken about the impact Scorsese's phrase made on him as a young filmmaker.)

After a moment, he went on: "When people in the US were not familiar with my films, Quentin [Tarantino] always put my films on his list."

Bong Joon Ho accepts the award for best international feature film. Photo / AP
Bong Joon Ho accepts the award for best international feature film. Photo / AP

Tarantino was the most prominent Western champion of Bong's 2006 genre-twisting monster movie The Host, and in 2009 called it one of the 20 greatest films to have been made since the release of Reservoir Dogs.

Spurred on by great American film-makers, Bong became a great Korean one, and is now recognised in America as a great film-maker full stop. You'll hopefully allow me a misty-eyed Oscar moment of my own when I say that this kind of trans-national cross-pollination is exactly how cinema should be working right now. For film culture in the immediate here and now, the significance of Bong's triumph can't be overstated.

Parasite's newly minted best picture branding will bring the film to an audience who might never have otherwise sought it out - particularly in the UK, where it only opened on Friday, to what I've heard anecdotally was the most successful opening weekend ever for a subtitled film.

For a lot of younger cinemagoers - and many older ones, too - this will also be their first encounter with what Bong, at the Baftas, called "the one-inch hurdle of subtitles". We can now hope, too, that subtitled films will no longer be the preserve of film fans, and attract mainstream audiences, especially once they discover how hands-down entertaining Bong's film is.

Bong Joon-ho: 5 things to know
He was blacklisted by the South Korean government
Adored he may be internationally, but Bong is a not-uncontroversial figure in his homeland. His name has turned up on a leaked government blacklist of subversive artists - someone to be denied state subsidies and even surveilled.

Okja made him a vegan
In 2017 Bong made Okja, an action-adventure about the mass production of mutant pigs. Visiting a slaughterhouse as research turned him into a temporary vegan. "Then I flew back to South Korea, and you know, Korea is a BBQ paradise," he explained.

He hates Harvey Weinstein
Weinstein wanted 25 minutes of Bong's satire Snowpiercer removed, along with a great deal of dialogue. To fight for his favourite scene to remain - involving a train guard gutting a fish - the director lied that the moment had personal resonance because his father had been a fisherman. The scene stayed.

And tight costumes
Bong has said that he'll never direct a Marvel superhero film. Why? He can't abide the costumes. "I'll never wear something like that, and just seeing someone in tight clothes is mentally difficult," he told Variety.

But he adores Tilda Swinton
Beyond being his two films in English, Snowpiercer and Okja have one thing in common: Tilda Swinton. "We Skype. We email. She comes to Seoul quite often, or I visit her in Scotland," Bong says. "She's just a source of energy."
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