Parasite’s Director Negged His Way to Best Picture

Bong Joon-ho perched on the other side of “the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles” and played hard to get.

Bong Joon-ho smooshes the faces of two of his Oscars together so they kiss.
“The Oscars are not an international film festival,” Bong said in October. “They’re very local.” Amy Sussman/Getty Images

Parasite’s quadruple wins at the 2020 Academy Awards were historic several times over: the first (through fourth) Oscars given to a South Korean film, the first dual winner for Best International Feature (née Best Foreign-Language Film) and Best Picture, and, of course, the first Best Picture winner in a language other than English. (Thank heavens no one in The Artist uttered so much as a “Oui.”) It’s enough to restore your faith that the Oscars really do, or at least can, matter—that for all their shortcomings and missteps and outright miscarriages of artistic justice, they’re worth taking seriously. But a significant part of how Parasite ended up on this lofty perch was by undermining that very idea, suggesting that legitimacy wasn’t something the Oscars possess by divine right but something they had to earn.

If there’s one thing we know about Oscar voters, it’s that they liked to be wooed. Even a star as established as Brad Pitt spent months doing the circuit to nail down his first Academy Award for acting. It’s possible to win an Oscar without shaking hands by the thousands; Joaquin Phoenix did it last night. But the climb is a much steeper one, and there are actors whose apparent antipathy for working the room—Eddie Murphy, for one—is said to weigh heavily against them. Bong campaigned for months on end, effectively moving to the U.S. and hiring big-ticket awards publicists to grease the movie’s path toward the Oscar. But he and Parasite’s distributor, Neon, made it clear that they weren’t going to do all of the Academy’s work for them. Rather than flood Oscar voters with DVDs and streaming links, Neon forced Oscar voters to leave the comfort of their screening rooms and see the film with an audience, counting on word of mouth to overcome their inertia.

And while Bong was always gracious in victory as he picked up one precursor award after another, he used his platform to challenge audiences as well as thank them. There was poetry in the Golden Globes speech where he evoked the “one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles” that separates English-speaking audiences from most of the world’s great movies. But he spoke those words in his native Korean, after making two movies in English and returning to his homeland to make his most acclaimed movie ever. He was planted on the other side of that barrier, and it was on others to make the modest effort to cross it.

Back in October, when even a nomination for Best International Film was far from a lock, Bong was asked by the New York magazine’s E. Alex Jung what he made of Parasite’s foray into the Oscar derby. “It’s a little strange, but it’s not a big deal,” he said. “The Oscars are not an international film festival. They’re very local.” His answer was both modest and defensive—it would have made little sense at that point to assume something might happen that had never happened before—but it was also a subtle kind of neg, a suggestion that, as Variety critic Justin Chang put it last week, the Oscars needed Bong more than he needed them. After all, he’d already won Cannes’ Palme d’Or, the most coveted award in world cinema (for Parasite), directed what was once the biggest box-office hit in the history of South Korea (The Host), and been acknowledged as one of the great living filmmakers for over a decade. What’s one more trophy, especially from an awards-giving body that, prior to last year, had failed to acknowledge that South Korean cinema even exists? When Bong and his cast hobnobbed with American movie stars, Neon underlined the message that it wasn’t just the Koreans who were meeting their heroes. The distributor tweeted out a picture from one gathering earlier this year with the caption, “When Song Kang Ho fan Brad Pitt met Song Kang Ho,” the image showing Pitt clasping the Parasite star’s hands in a posture of supplication. (In hindsight, the picture seems as key to Pitt’s campaign as to Parasite’s.)

Bong’s acceptance speech for Best Director was one of the most generous and moving in recent memory, much of it devoted to his fellow nominees Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, whom he credited as a key inspiration and an invaluable supporter. (When was the last time you saw an Oscar loser get a standing ovation in the middle of the winner’s speech?) But he didn’t come off as an eager acolyte paying homage to his established betters. Instead, he spoke as a peer (or, in the case of Sam Mendes and Todd Phillips, a superior) taking his rightful place in the pantheon. Bong might not have expected to win, but he acted as if he belonged. And even in the midst of a victory that resonated around the world, Bong didn’t grant the Oscars a dignity that they still don’t deserve. In pictures after the ceremony, you can see him making two of his Oscars kiss as if he’s playing with action figures, savoring the moment for its ridiculousness as well as its significance. He didn’t need four Oscars to be Bong Joon-ho, and that’s the real prize.

Read more in Slate about the Oscars.