Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite won big at the 92nd Academy Awards. It bagged four top honours including the Best Picture Oscar. Parasite also merits special acclaim for being the first Non-English film to win in the Best Picture category. Expectedly, Bong Joon Ho is over the moon and considers his victory as a big moment for South Korean cinema.
The Oscar has its own set of problems and I am not suggesting that an Oscar recognition is always an indicator of excellence in cinema produced in Hollywood. However, it was heartwarming when several of those who came on stage either to present or accept awards made repeated references to race, gender, equality and justice through film reminding their colleagues about cinema’s social role. Like all other awards, the Academy Awards also fall prey to formula and that criticism is valid. Before the big day, film critics and audiences spend many anxious moments making predictions for possible winners. However, I see Parasite’s victory in a slightly different way.
Bong Joon Ho is a well-regarded film maker from South Korea. His films have regularly travelled the film festival route enabling many of us located in smaller cities like Pune to watch his films. He recently said that once you overcome the barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many amazing films. I couldn’t agree more with his statement though I have always believed that cinema is primarily a visual medium. The visuals or images constructed in film become its language. Often the images speak louder than dialogues and I felt the same while watching Parasite.
Set in contemporary South Korea, it is the story of class apathy and social disparity. While wealth is controlled and concentrated in the hands of a few, large masses live literally like parasites in their underground homes because they couldn’t afford to live anywhere else. There’s a scene in the film when the parasite-like residence, because of its low-lying location, is submerged in water owing to incessant rains. The people look helpless and indifferent because they don’t know what else to do. I don’t think any language or subtitle would aid or prohibit my understanding of this agony though the reach and visibility of such cinema remains a point of concern.
Parasite’s win is expected to awaken many film viewers (not only Americans) to cinema beyond Hollywood. Owing to its cultural and political clout, Hollywood is often the only foreign cinema that is available in our theatres. Film festivals, film society and archive screenings and some online film viewing platforms are the only other forums to watch non-Hollywood foreign films.
For whatever reasons, the Oscars are popular and have a wide reach, and if this popularity can help bring attention to the many cinemas of the world, perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. Am I being too ambitious while saying this? Perhaps yes, but as I write this, Parasite is back in theatres with increased number of shows. Many multiplexes have moved the film from a late night slot to a more respectable time amenable for public viewing.
At theatres here, we also managed to see Pedro Almodovar’s Pain and Glory which was nominated alongside Parasite in the Best International Film category. There were very few shows entirely made possible by the Oscar nomination. Is that a desirable situation? I don’t think so. But I do want to hope that a small beginning has been made with Parasite.
Bong Joon Ho has also made English films in the past and worked with Hollywood stars like Tilda Swinton. However, his films have been most effective when he delved deeper into his own context and social reality. Parasite is a glaring example of that conviction and reminds us again of cinema’s powerful role to make us aware of the many inequalities that thrive around us and how complicit we are in such a process.
This article first appeared in the print edition on February 13, 2020 under the title ‘After the prize’. The writer teaches literary and cultural studies at FLAME University, Pune.
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