By Zoe Ong
On the 10th of February 2020, Dir. Bong Joon Ho’s ‘Parasite’ made Oscars history. Already critically acclaimed and decorated with an array of accolades, including the prestigious Palme d’Or from the Cannes Film Festival, it came as no surprise that ‘Parasite’ was in the running with 6 nominations at the Oscars. Heavily praised by international audiences and critics alike, both hope and doubt surrounded ‘Parasite’ at the Oscars. Could it really be done? Could a foreign language film really take home ‘Best Picture’ in an Awards Ceremony that has faced ongoing criticism for a jarring lack of representation? Well the answer is yes, here’s why and what it means moving forward.
The most important thing to recognise about this film is that it is unabashedly unafraid of exposing complex issues that many Hollywood film makers might shy away from. Rare is such a film in our modern day that confronts so many of our own, present societal issues, rather than confronting fantastical ones on far-away planets or already dystopian worlds. ‘Parasite’ has excellent storytelling, raising more questions about society than it answers, leaving the audience haunted by its messages long after the end of the film. Dir. Bong Joon Ho’s manipulation of satire to discuss complex, ‘invisible’ structures within society ensure an intriguing psychological thriller that is at its very core, an insanely disturbing one.
As the name suggests, ‘Parasite’ focuses on the parasites within our own societies, but challenges conventional assumptions as to who the parasites really are. The film follows the Kim family who live in abject poverty in South Korea, the first act of the film following their plans to deceptively attain service jobs in the Park household. Each member of the Kim family manages to acquire employment as workers for the Parks, a tutor, an art therapist, a driver and a housekeeper. Whilst the jobs seem easy enough at first and the Kim’s enjoy the steady pay provided to them by the oblivious Parks, the tasks steadily become more tedious and less and less attractive as the film progresses. Initially, Bong positions the audience to perceive the Kim family as parasites of the naive ‘generosity’ of the Parks, but by the end of the film, new questions are raised as to who the ‘parasites’ really are. Many have taken to the interpretation that whilst the Kim’s are financial parasites of the Parks, the Parks are also parasites of the hard labour and ‘soft exploitation’ of the poor. It is this redefining of the ‘parasite’ through which Bong hopes to provide new insight into society’s perception of itself.
Another example of Bong’s societal commentary is the ‘line’ established between the Parks and the Kim family throughout the film. Mr Park consistently reiterates the ‘line’ between himself and his service staff, which suggests a level of professionalism, but also represents “a division he has established to maintain his status as a superior.” Another symbol of the division the Parks use to maintain their higher socio-economic status is the supposed ‘smell’ of those poorer than them. This is reinforced throughout the film by both Mr and Mrs Park, as well as a truly intense moment in which the son of the Park household sniffs the service staff and comments, “they all smell the same.” Whilst this has a practical explanation as all the Kim family uses the same laundry detergent, it reinforces the idea of smell and its close association with class. Dir. Bong has stated in an interview “But what they really want, and this is something that Mr. Park says in the film, is they draw a line over their sophisticated world and they don’t let anyone cross it. They’re not interested in the outside world, the subway and people who might perhaps smell. They want to push everyone outside of that line and they want to remain safe behind it.” The smell of the Kim family serves as a reminder to the Park family of the poverty of their service staff, and there is question surrounding whether the smell is really displeasing or if the Park family is just uncomfortable with the constant reminder of the conditions in which those that work for them are forced to live in.
This raises a question about our own society - just as the Parks are only confronted by the reality of those that they are exploiting for their own luxury, are people in our own developed world ignorant of the source of goods and luxuries they have access to as a result of the exploitation of others in developing countries? Cult favourites brands many of us are familiar with such as MINKPINK, Decjuba and Tigerlily are amongst the lowest graded brands in terms of ethics, according to the Baptist World Aid Australia Ethical Fashion Report. Is it our own society, that preaches social justice and strong ethical teachings the same that sports new Tigerlily bikinis with the turn of each new season and a hypocrisy so jarring that we have somehow turned it invisible?
At the end of the film, Ki-Woo writes to his father about his plan to go to university, attain a job, get married and eventually buy the Park house, liberating Ki-Taek from the basement of the Park house. Whilst this makes it seem like ‘Parasite’ has ended on a high notes, Bong reveals that it would take 564 years for Ki-Woo to save enough money to buy the house - contradicting the popular sentiment that hard work and determination provides the opportunity to rise up, away from one’s current socio-economic status.
So, having established the magnificence of Dir. Bong’s ‘Parasite’, it should come as no surprise that the film won ‘Academy Award for Best Picture’ along with ‘Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay’, ‘Academy Award for Best International Feature Film’ and scored its director ‘Academy Award for Best Director’. However, the win did come as a surprise and was a momentous occasion. Running among other great nominated films like Ford v Ferrari, The Irishman, Jojo Rabbit, Joker, Little Women, Marriage Story, 1917, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the ‘Parasite’ win marked a historical moment for the Academy Awards and the film industry as a whole.
‘Parasite’ is the first foreign film to win ‘Best Picture’ at the Oscars, and has surpassed the ‘divide’ often present between critics and the Academy. Dir. Bong Joon Ho is the second Asian filmmaker to win ‘Best Director’, after Taiwan’s Ang Lee (two-time winner for 2013 ‘Life of Pi’ and 2001 ‘Crouching Tiger’). Parasite’s four Oscar wins and six nominations are momentous - but many are cautious as to what will happen next. This win is only the ‘turning of a door handle’ rather than an open door, in an awards ceremony criticised time and time again for an obvious lack of representation. Many are not holding their breath for a ‘renewed’ Oscars ceremony in 2021, and it is unfortunate but realistic to assume that we won’t be expecting any ground-breaking awards decisions anytime soon. Whilst this is a grim reality, it is important to recognise what the ‘Parasite’ wins represent. It’s recognition of South Korea’s long-flourished film industry, and the ability for a foreign film to win ‘Best Picture’ at a prestigious Awards ceremony.
But most of all, ‘Parasite’ is hope, hope for our own society to recognise issues that need to be corrected together, and hope for the breaking of a tall, wide wall to allow for recognition of a rich, international film industry.