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What ‘Parasite’ did for the Oscars, and what it didn’t

History was made on Sunday night. For the first time in the Oscars’ 92 years, a foreign language film, “Parasite,” took home the award for Best Picture. As a Korean-American student who’d seen the film initially in Korea, I sat waiting by the screen, shocked and elated. Though the film was almost universally acclaimed by both moviegoers and critics alike, the win still came as a surprise. Many had lost hope for the Oscars; after the lingering problem of #OscarsSoWhite in 2015 and the disappointment of “Green Book” winning in 2019, it seemed like the acclaimed awards ceremony was becoming increasingly distant from the movement of masterful filmmaking and rewarding movies that many felt were patronizing to audiences of color. “Parasite” proved both to viewers and future artists, including students at Princeton and across the world, that new voices could change this past. 

Looking at past Oscars history, it was unlikely that “Parasite,” an incredible South Korean film, would have a chance at Best Picture. However, when the night ended and Bong Joon Ho was called to the stage for the fourth time (he also won Best Original Screenplay, Best International Film, and Best Director), it felt like something had changed. Finally, it seemed, the Oscars had rightfully acknowledged the talent and storytelling that surpassed identity, nation, and language. Across the internet, fans and critics alike celebrated the turning of a new leaf.

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The movie’s win was groundbreaking, a crucial moment in which international creative voices were finally brought into the picture. The United States, while often concerned with its own lack of representation, has almost always felt a need to separate from other countries and their art, regarding them as “special” yet somehow inferior. International film festivals such as Cannes rarely receive domestic attention, and foreign language films are usually presented with awards way before the stars of the night — domestic actors and films. 

“Parasite” opened the eyes of American awards to the global arena of film, subtly threatening that if the Oscars didn’t catch on, the rest of the world would move on. For many, it confirmed that the awards were still in touch with incredible filmmaking, choosing innovation, brilliance, and relevance over big names (Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino) and pop culture icons (“Joker”). More than anything, the win asserted that a ceremony that appears as lofty as the Oscars still acknowledged the immediacy and pertinence of the film’s message: a direct confrontation of economic inequality and the consequences of capitalism. 

However, it’s difficult to claim that “Parasite” saved the Oscars. Though it represented an important step forward, the film didn’t free the awards ceremony from its previous criticisms. Despite an attempt to invite diverse performers — such as Janelle Monae or Chris Rock — glaring holes in the nominations were still present. Cynthia Erivo was the only person of color to receive an acting nomination. Once again, there were no women directors nominated, despite 2019 being a huge year for women in film, from Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” to Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell.”

Even the success of “Parasite” continues to illuminate resting prejudices in the Oscars and in the awards community in general. The history of Asian and Asian-American actors being ignored and devalued persists. The fact that none of the cast members received any acting nominations perpetuates the idea that, despite a great story, the idea of good acting as we understand it must be American. “Parasite” was the first film to win Best Picture without acting nominations since “Slumdog Millionaire” in 2009, another film with two main characters of color. Though Bong Joon Ho’s name has been mentioned and celebrated throughout the awards season, many of the main actors’ names are barely mentioned in articles and reviews. While “Parasite” may have been a masterpiece of filmmaking, this erasure labels international actors and filmmakers as still foreign, only to be understood as a collective identity.

Despite these continuing disparities, we should take this moment to commemorate such a historic win. When I first saw “Parasite” this past summer in Seoul, I was immediately struck by its intelligence and sensitivity, its revelations and twists. But even when it began to hit American theaters, I never expected much. I was familiar with the history of Asian and Asian-American stories, accustomed to the tradition of ignorance. Yet “Parasite” showed us all a new possible world of film, one where all stories and voices are recognized for talent, not identity — for universality, not familiarity. The Oscars are not perfect, but this weekend, “Parasite” opened new doors for all of us towards conversation and hope. For now, let’s celebrate. 

Kate Lee is a first-year from Austin, Texas. She can be reached at k.lee@princeton.edu.

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