Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar Night Had All the Genre-Bending Twists of His Movies

Like Parasite, it had suspense, sly humor, binge-drinking, and at least one tear-jerking moment.

Bong Joon-ho poses with an armful of Oscars.
It’s so metaphorical. Valerie Macon/Getty Images

The steady, stealthy victory of Parasite at the 2020 Oscars was a movie in itself, complete with plot twists, drama, laughter, and tears: a thrilling mashup of genres, just like a film by Bong Joon-ho. Even if you’d never seen Parasite—as was no doubt the case for many viewers of this year’s ceremony—it would be hard not to find yourself rooting, by the end, for the South Korean writer-director who for the past decade and a half has been quietly becoming one of the best filmmakers in the world. The whole evening, Bong displayed an affect not often seen at the Oscars: amused but not snarky, delighted to be there but remaining at a certain distance from the spectacle. Earlier on in the sparkly slog of awards season, he was quoted in an interview calling Hollywood’s top prize a “very local” award—a sick burn that was somehow also a perfectly neutral and true observation about the American film industry’s complacent solipsism. Anyway, no one at the academy appears to have taken offense. For the first time in the Oscars’ 92-year-history, a nonlocal boy has made good, taking the prizes for Best Original Screenplay, Best International Feature Film, Best Director, and Best Picture.

As Bong’s globally successful and critically acclaimed seventh film sailed through 2019 collecting trophy after trophy, suspense began to build around the question of whether Parasite would become the first movie in a language other than English to have a real chance at winning Best Picture. The resolution to that suspense came in a joyous four-stage catharsis in an evening that, while not without its funny and touching moments, was otherwise mainly notable for its predictability (every acting award, and nearly all of the technical ones, went to the person or film widely expected to win it). Bong’s Oscar-night movie-within-a-movie kicked off with what was, at least to some, a surprise twist, as the director and his Parasite co-writer Han Jin-won—Bong’s 35-year-old former assistant, collaborating for the first time on a script—took the stage to accept an award in the category of Best Original Screenplay. His speech then was gracious but short; for all he knew, he wouldn’t be onstage much more that night, so he thanked his cast and crew in a rapid-fire list of names, said a few heartfelt words (translated from Korean, like all his speeches, by interpreter Sharon Choi), and then stepped aside to let his co-writer speak while he took in his new gold statue with the world’s most meme-able smile.

An hour later, Bong was onstage again, accepting the prize for Best International Feature Film—a category that, as he pointed out in a different, more philosophical acceptance speech, was known until this year as “Best Foreign Language Film.” He agreed with that name change, he said, and was honored to be the first beneficiary of it. The shift from “foreign” to “international” is small but significant: It decenters Hollywood in the moviemaking universe and reminds us, as Parasite’s global success did, that the world is full of countries with their own great national cinemas and that the boundaries that distinguish “domestic” from “foreign” films are, and should be, breaking down. (It also acknowledges that, for many Americans, languages like Korean and Spanish aren’t “foreign” at all.) That second win, which was considered one of the night’s surefire locks, was clearly the last time Bong expected to be onstage, as evidenced by his parting joke in English: “I’m ready to drink tonight until next morning.” (He reiterated his commitment to after-party merrymaking at the end of his next speech: “Thank you. I will drink until next morning. Thank you.”)

Twenty minutes later, in the night’s next, big surprise, came Best Director, the one that first got even this usually Oscar-indifferent viewer’s heart beating in the unlikely hope that Parasite might take the whole thing. And here Bong’s movie-within-a-movie suddenly swerved into a tear-jerking drama, with a speech that kicked off with a quote from fellow nominee Martin Scorsese that had inspired the younger director when he was a film student: “What is most personal is most creative.” This humble shoutout led to an immediate and extended standing ovation for a visibly misty-eyed Scorsese, who has long made a point of championing Bong and other international filmmakers he admires (and whose masterwork The Irishman received exactly none of the 10 Oscars it was nominated for). Bong then thanked Quentin Tarantino for supporting his films, offered kind words about their co-nominees Todd Phillips and Sam Mendes, and charmingly asked the academy for a “Texas chainsaw” so he could chop his trophy into five pieces and share it with them all. If you could make it through that Best Director speech without feeling humbled yourself at the capacity of great art to connect people across cultures, languages, and generations, maybe there’s no movie that can help you.

If you’ve seen Parasite, you know it concludes with one last twist, a development that’s at once consistent with the whole movie’s arc and infinitely, shockingly sad. The final twist of Bong’s meta-movie last night was just the opposite: a consummation devoutly to be wished, a grand slam home run, a blast of pure giddy triumph. Even Jane Fonda’s announcement of the results was appropriately suspenseful, with a pause for a full inhale and exhale between opening the envelope and pronouncing the title. For the first time that night, the film’s cast, beaming with delight, took the stage alongside the director whom, as has been clear throughout awards season, they both esteem and adore. Bong himself never took the mic this time, letting his producer Kwak Sin-ae give the speech, as is the custom for this category. But the presence of the cast and crew onstage brought the night’s central story to an exhilarating close as the actors, none of whom received a nomination, demonstrated the mutual support and solidarity that made them the year’s best ensemble (an award the academy doesn’t give out, but the Screen Actors Guild does, and it gave it to Parasite). After the show’s producers dimmed the lights on the Parasite cast, the audience in the Dolby Theatre protested until the lights came back up—they weren’t done applauding. The trajectory Bong’s film had traveled over the course of those 3½ hours was unexpected, it was funny, it was beautiful, and it mattered in ways that will resonate far beyond one ephemeral awards ceremony. What more can you ask of a movie?