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For one night, at least, Hollywood celebrated another part of the world.
Parasite, a film by South Korean director Bong Joon-ho, became the first film in a language other than English to win the Academy Award for Best Picture at the Oscars yesterday. Bong also won the award for Best Director, becoming the first Korean and only second Asian director (after Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee) to do so. Parasite won four awards in total, including for Best Original Screenplay—the first non-English script to win in 17 years and just the sixth ever.
It was a welcome course correction for the Academy, a year after Green Book won the top prize over the Spanish-language drama Roma. Since the “Oscars So White” controversy of 2015, the Academy has made an effort to diversify its membership, bringing in more women, minorities, and international voters into its ranks. About 39% of these new members are from outside the United States, according to the Hollywood Reporter.
That drive for inclusion has not yet been reflected in the show’s acting nominees. Only one actor of color (Cynthia Erivo) and no women directors were nominated this year. (The Academy is still just 32% female and 16% non-white, up from 25% and 8%, respectively, in 2015.)
But the win for Parasite could be a sign that the Academy is finally willing—or, perhaps, even excited—to recognize the world of cinema beyond Hollywood.
Though Roma did not win the top prize last year, its director, Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón, did win Best Director. The film was nominated for 10 awards overall, winning three. Arguably, the lack of more wins (including Best Picture) can be attributed more to its Netflixness (the film was released in only a smattering of theaters before it was put on Netflix) than to its perceived foreignness.
Parasite, which had a traditional theatrical release in the US and everywhere else, did not have the same issue. It beat out several films the Academy normally goes for, like the odds-on favorite 1917 (an elaborate war film featuring a variety of vaguely recognizable British actors); The Irishman, from venerated director Martin Scorsese; and Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood—an actual homage to American cinema.
The Academy has long acknowledged that great filmmaking exists outside the United States, but has never gone as far as to bestow a production from another country with the industry’s highest honor—despite ample opportunities to do so. Among the foreign-language Best Picture nominees that could (and perhaps should) have won are Life Is Beautiful (Italy, 1998), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (China, 2000), and Amour (France, 2012).
Renowned filmmakers Federico Fellini (Italy), François Truffaut (France), Ingmar Bergman (Sweden), and Pedro Almodóvar (Spain) are among the many filmmakers from outside the US to be nominated for Best Director without ever winning.
We already have an idea which countries might follow in South Korea’s footsteps as the next Best Picture winner. Fifteen countries have won multiple Best International Feature Film awards, with Italy and France clearly leading the way:
One of those countries—Spain, Italy, and France in particular—are probably the likeliest places to produce the next non-English Best Picture winner, if history is any indication. But Parasite‘s win, coupled with a newly diverse group of voters, could even open up the award to parts of the world that the Oscars have mostly ignored.
The Middle East is one such region: Lebanese films were nominated for Best International Film in both 2017 (The Insult) and 2018 (Capernaum) while the Iranian films The Salesman and A Separation won in 2016 and 2011, respectively. Israel, meanwhile, is the country with the most nominations in that category (10) that has yet to win. So if the Oscars’ international movement is to last beyond one night, these might be the countries to continue the trend:
Parasite may not be the last the Oscars have seen of South Korea, either. The country has a rich cinema tradition, and many of its most acclaimed filmmakers—like Oldboy director Park Chan-wook—are already well-known to Academy members in the United States.
It could also be the beginning for Bong, who counts Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino—two of his fellow Best Director nominees—as influences. Scorsese has spent years trying to educate Americans about the merits of global cinema. (Established in 2007, his World Cinema Project Last aims to preserve and screen infrequently seen international films in the US.)
Last night, the esteemed Hollywood director and his film were defeated by the precise kind of film—and filmmaker—he’s encouraged more Americans to notice. For the first time ever, Hollywood really listened.