Parasite deserves to be one of the year's major Oscar players. Can it be?
Last February, for the first time in more than 40 years, two directors of foreign-language films competed against each other for the Best Director Oscar: Alfonso Cuarón (Roma), the 2014 category winner for Gravity, and Paweł Pawlikowski (Cold War), whose black-and-white drama Ida won Best Foreign Language Film in 2015. Cuarón, as widely expected, took home the gold again, marking the fifth time in six years that the category was won by a Mexican filmmaker.
The directors’ branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences seems to skew more global than ever. And as delayed recognition has arrived for such beloved international filmmakers as Pawlikowski, it’s fair to wonder who could — and should — be next in line.
This cycle, all eyes are on Bong Joon-ho and Parasite (out Friday), a South Korean black comedy that won this year’s Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Bong is a well-known director Stateside, even as the bulk of his work is not made in English. His English-language debut, the sci-fi thriller Snowpiercer, followed a slew of acclaimed films including The Host and Mother, and raked in nearly $100 million worldwide. He followed that up with Okja, a $50 million Netflix production set between Seoul and New York, starring Tilda Swinton and Paul Dano, among others. Both films received good reviews. But with Parasite, which is almost entirely in Korean, he’s reaching new levels of acclaim.
Bong’s films are consistently haunted by the perils of capitalism — especially explicit themes in Snowpiercer and Okja — but in Parasite he delivers a class parable encompassing of an entire nation. It’s a wickedly surprising ride that begins when the teenage son of a poor family in Seoul lands a job tutoring a student who belongs to an extremely wealthy family. From there, the two clans become increasingly entangled, Bong leaning on his love for genre filmmaking at just the right, most provocative moments.
Indeed, the film oscillates between brutal violence and intimate realism, yet Bong stays in complete control throughout, ensuring his characters stay nuanced and vivid even as the plot’s intensity gets turned up several notches. It feels, in many ways, like a culmination of the director’s filmography thus far — featuring everything that has made his work so distinctive and memorable in one explosive package. After winning Cannes, Parasite was named second runner-up for the Grolsch People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, affirming both its populist and cinephile appeal.
Thus, Parasite is hurtling into awards season with tremendous momentum. The sense that this is Bong’s time, having not even been nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, is palpable, as is the movie’s resonance with North American audiences. (EW’s Leah Greenblatt said in her review that it’s made with “so much wit and heart that it almost feels like a party trick, swirling so many big-swing provocations in the creamy peanut butter of crowd-pleasing entertainment.”) Distributor Neon sees the film as a legitimate Best Picture candidate, and given that the field looks rather scattered so far, they’re right on the money. Best Director gets awfully crowded awfully quickly, but at least for now, Bong looks to be firmly in the mix alongside Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, and Noah Baumbach.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t throw Song Kang-ho’s name in for Best Actor, too. One of South Korea’s finest — from Bong movies like The Host and Memories of Murder to others including The Attorney and A Taxi Driver — he gives a career-best performance here. One would hope this cycle’s critics’ awards vault him at least into consideration in a historically competitive Best Actor field. But don’t hold your breath.
Another worthy international Best Actor contender this year? Antonio Banderas, of Pain and Glory. In a mournful turn as an alter ego of his director and longtime collaborator, Pedro Almodóvar, he too has never been better. Perhaps more surprisingly, Banderas is still without an Oscar nomination, despite a globally well-regarded career. Pain and Glory opened in New York and Los Angeles last week to excellent reviews and a very impressive specialty box office haul, positioning it nicely as an awards candidate. (Here we’ll note that Pain and Glory and Parasite were selected by Spain and South Korea, respectively, as submissions for the Oscars’ newly renamed Best International Film category.)
I’ve already granted Banderas some real estate in this space, so I’ll just briefly note that with this strong start, he’s looking like a serious Best Actor player. But this movie just keeps getting stronger overall: After a solid Cannes bow where Banderas won Best Actor, word of mouth spread out of TIFF, and reaction from U.S. audiences last week was more rapturous than expected, with raves out of the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, New Yorker, and more major publications calling it Almodóvar’s best movie in decades, and his most personal ever.
Unlike Bong, Almodóvar has found plenty of embrace from the Academy over the years: His All About My Mother won Best Foreign Language Film, and he won Best Original Screenplay for Talk to Her. But he hasn’t received much Oscar attention in a long, long time. Comprised of Almodóvar’s regrets and memories, Pain and Glory transforms heartbreak and loss into artistic triumph. It’s the result of a filmmaker baring his soul. You can bet some members of the directors’ branch will want to get behind that story.