'Bong Hive' Arrives at the Oscars as the Academy Takes a Step Forward

'Parasite' emerging with the highest awards was the high-point of a largely tepid ceremony, with the Academy playing safe once again.

It was all destined. Last year, the Academy changed the name of the “Best Foreign Language Film” category to “Best International Feature”. It wanted to promote a “positive and inclusive view of filmmaking” — “the art of film as a universal experience”. It was a much-needed step, because the Oscars, mostly recognising the best in English-language cinema, is often confused for honouring the best in global cinema.

It’s evident from the number of “foreign” language films getting the nod for Best Picture. In the first 90 years of the Academy’s history, only ten foreign films have received that honour – that number was four till its 67th edition. Then came Roma, which was nominated for 10 Oscars, winning the Best Director award, although it still didn’t get the Best Picture. That award was snagged by a mediocre ‘White Saviour’ drama, The Green Book. No non-English film in the history of the Academy had ever won that award.

But then, in the summer of 2019, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. The film didn’t just win the festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or, it did so by a unanimous vote. The last time that had happened was 2013 (Blue is the Warmest Colour). But Parasite wasn’t just admired by the critics and juries. After its Cannes premiere, many cinephiles took to Twitter, expressing fondness for its director. Suddenly, #BongHive was everywhere.

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And then it hit the awards circuit. But there was a crucial difference between Parasite and Roma. Unlike Mexican cinema, thanks to filmmakers such as Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro, South Korean films weren’t as popular among the Western audiences. But it was an idea whose time had come.

Parasite got nominated for six Oscars: Best Production Design, Best Editing, Best Original Screenplay, Best International Feature, Best Director, and Best Picture. It was the first time ever that a South Korean film had been nominated for any Academy Award, let alone Best Picture. Bong himself got four nominations. But he wouldn’t let the hype get to him. Here’s what he thought about them: “The Oscars are not an international film festival,” he said. “They’re very local.”

Director Bong Joon-ho accepts the Oscar for Best International Feature for Parasite of South Korea at the 92nd Academy Awards in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, US, February 9, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Mario Anzuoni

But Parasite wasn’t a frontrunner in the Oscars race. That was Todd Phillip’s Joker with 11 nominations, followed by 10 each for Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, and Sam Mendes’ 1917. Besides, Mendes’ epic single-take war drama had all the buzz. It won the best picture and best director at the recently concluded Golden Globe and British Academy of Film and Television Arts Awards. Mendes also won the Directors Guild of America Award, while his movie the Producers Guild of America Award.

The 92nd Academy Awards, though, wanted a different story. At first, the script felt familiar. Parasite lost out to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood for Best Production Design (Barbara Ling and Nancy Haigh) and to Ford v Ferrari for Best Editing (Andrew Buckland and Michael McCusker). But then the #BongHive began to spread. First it was Best Original Screenplay (Bong and Han Jin-won), then the Best International Feature Film. Bong went on stage and, speaking in Korean, said he was happy to win this Oscar in the first year of the nomination’s name change. Then there was more. Bong won the Best Director award. He also got the biggest award of the night, the Best Picture, sharing it with the film’s producer, Kwak Sin-ae.

To understand the significance of this occasion, consider this: Before the 92nd Academy Awards, only Walt Disney had won four Oscars in a single night – and that was more than six decades ago, in 1954. (Although technically, according to a weird Academy rule, Bong won three awards, as the Best International Feature is awarded to a country, not an individual.) Earlier this year, Bong had said that, “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” The Academy members, who have shown some willingness to introspect in recent years, did seem to heed that advice. Parasite winning four Oscars – the highest for any film this year – is as significant a victory for Bong as it is for the Academy.

A tepid ceremony

The ceremony on its own, however, was a largely tepid affair. The Academy played safe once again, settling on a host-less event. In the absence of a unifying magnetic presence, it was left to the award announcers and winners to stir the evening. A few managed to do that. Brad Pitt, who won Best Supporting Actor for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, thanked his stunt coordinator (he played a stuntman in Tarantino’s film) and took a dig at Donald Trump’s impeachment trial. (“They told me I only have 45 seconds up here, which is 45 seconds more than what the Senate gave John Bolton this week.”) Roger Deakins, who won the Best Cinematographer for 1917, also thanked his collaborators, his focus pullers and gaffers, in his acceptance speech. These were heartfelt moments: to see less glamorous contributors getting their due on the most glamorous stage.

Brad Pitt poses backstage with his award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in any Motion Picture for “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.” Photo: Reuters/Mike Blake

Taika Waititi, of Jewish and Maori descent, became the first indigenous person to win an Academy Award. He got the honour for Best Adapted Screenplay for Jojo Rabbit, dedicating his win to the “indigenous children around the world”. Winning the Best Actor for Joker, Joaquin Phoenix also gave an impassioned, albeit slightly rambling, acceptance speech, touching upon “gender inequality, racism, queer rights, indigenous rights, [and] animal rights”. In a reflective moment, he called himself “cruel and ungrateful at times”, expressing gratitude to the many people in the audience who gave him a second chance.

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Renée Zellweger, winning the Best Actress award for Judy, spoke about the heroes who unite and define us. It was also a nod to her performance, where she played noted American singer and actress Judy Garland. The other acting award, Best Supporting Actress, went to Laura Dern for Netflix’s Marriage Story. It was one of two victories for the streaming giant, which had entered the Oscars with 24 nominations. Its American Factory, a poignant and relevant piece on the challenges of middle-class workers in a globalised economy, was declared Best Documentary Feature.

A sharp departure from the previous editions, this year’s Oscars wasn’t dominated by one single film. Parasite won the highest number of awards, four, followed by 1917 (three), then Ford v Ferrari, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and Joker (two each).

So it was only fitting that the evening’s most memorable moment came through, who else but, Bong. While accepting the Best Director award, he first thanked Scorsese. “When I was young and studying cinema,” he said, “there was a saying that I carved deep into my heart, which is that ‘The most personal is the most creative’. That quote is from our great Martin Scorsese.” At that moment, the crowd applauded and gave a standing ovation to the veteran, who had been nominated for his 9th Academy Award. Bong then thanked Tarantino, saying, “When people in the US were not familiar with my films, Quentin [Tarantino] always put my films on his list.” Tarantino, a longtime champion of world cinema, has often spoken fondly about the Korean filmmaker. In 2013, he called him “[Steven] Spielberg in his prime”.

Parasite’s historic win has set a wonderful precedent. Hopefully, many more cinephiles will discover that there are Spielbergs aplenty in this world. “Overcoming the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles” won’t hurt.