Saturday, May 30, 2020

Things have changed: Parasite triumphs at the 2020 Oscars

Parasite went into the 92nd Academy Awards with six nominations. Three of those were for director Bong Joon-ho. No South Korean film had been nominated for an Oscar before this. No non-English language film had ever won best picture.

It was supposed to be the night of 1917 and Joker. Yet somehow, a savagely funny Korean film about class divisions ran away with the night’s top honours. And Bong Joon-ho, a world cinema star but hardly a household name outside cinephile circles, went home with three personal Oscars, for original screenplay, director and best picture (he’s one of the producers), plus a fourth trip to the stage to pick up best international feature (which, bizarrely, is awarded to the submitting country, not an individual).

Parasite was already a Palme d’Or winner, but Cannes films are supposed to be content with foreign language Oscars. Bong winning over Tarantino and Mendes and Scorsese is a signal to the filmmaking world that a long-closed door has been kicked open. It may slam shut next year – let’s remember that last year, a mediocre American film, Green Book, won the top prize over a superior foreign one, Roma – but it’s still a much-needed acknowledgment from the Academy that the best film of the year isn’t always in English.

The ceremony badly needed the kick of history in the making. Apart from Bong’s trips to the stage, this was one of the most desultory Oscars in recent memory (which is saying something). There was no host, like last time – just a line of presenters offering nervous jokes and trying not to mispronounce nominee names. A few seemed to have been sent out with instructions to shock the audience (like Ray Romano saying “fuck" for no particular reason), but mostly they were just awkward, from a rambling Tom Hanks talking about a selfie museum to Rebel Wilson and James Corden in fur costumes making fun of their own film, Cats.

That this was your dad’s Oscars became clear when Eminem came on to perform ‘Lose Yourself’, a track from the 2002 movie 8 Mile. This was plainly an attempt to reach out to the kids who won’t watch the Oscars anymore – and a clear sign that the Academy has no idea what kids today are listening to. Unfortunately, they doubled down on the hip-hop, with rapper Utkarsh Ambudkar recapping the ceremony in rhyme, a moment of forced diversity so uncomfortable even the well-heeled attendees weren’t sure how to react.

Lead acting honours went according to form, Joaquin Phoenix picking up a statue for Joker and Renee Zellweger winning for her role as Judy Garland in Judy. Supporting actor trophies went to two popular turns, Brad Pitt for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Laura Dern in Marriage Story. Jojo Rabbit won adapted screenplay; Parasite’s win for original screenplay was the first sign that this was going to be a big night for the film. The technical awards went the way of 1917 (best cinematography for Roger Deakins, sound mixing and visual effects) and Ford v Ferrari (editing, sound design).

Amidst all the painfully sincere stump speeches, there were moments of genuine feeling: Deakins thanking his key grip, gaffer and focus puller; best documentary winner Julia Reichert acknowledging that some of her fellow nominees literally risked their lives to make their films; Hildur Guðnadóttir, the first female best score winner in 23 years, opening with “This is so touching". The image everyone will take away, though, is of Bong on stage, after he's said thanks for the original screenplay win. As his co-writer, Han Jin-won, speaks, he turns and gazes at his statuette, laughing lightly, as if he can’t believe where he’s reached. A couple of hours later, he’ll make history.

This piece appeared in Mint.

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