Although the revival of South Korean cinema had started back in the 1990s, it reached its blinding apotheosis when Bong Joon-ho made history in 2019. With his gripping sociopolitical thriller Parasite, Bong became the first filmmaker in history to win the Academy Award for Best Picture with a non-English language film.
This decision sparked outrage among some critics who claimed that the Best Picture category was reserved for films in English since there was another category for Best Foreign Film, which Parasite had already won. However, Parasite’s historic victory should not be reduced by conflicts over semantics. It represents a deeper shift in the notoriously exclusive sensibilities of the Academy.
Born in South Korea in 1969, Bong was a student of sociology in university, and the influence of sociological schools of thought is clearly evident in almost all his works. His university years also coincided with the movement for democracy in South Korea which contributed to this political awakening as well. He was actively involved in demonstrations and protests, even being tear-gassed by the authorities on multiple occasions.
After returning from military service, which is mandatory in the country, Bong decided to explore his love for cinema through the creation of a film club where he invited students from different institutions to discuss the subject. It was this club that set Bong on his way towards becoming one of the greatest contemporary filmmakers because it encouraged him to make his first short films in 16mm.
Many people who are not familiar with Bong Joon-ho’s filmography and the context of the New Wave of cinema in South Korea think that Bong became a one-hit-wonder with Parasite, but that was not the case at all. Starting from his debut feature in 2000 titled Barking Dogs Never Bite, Bong started gaining international recognition with screenings at prestigious film festivals, but it wasn’t a significant financial success.
Thankfully, that did not deter Bong because he actually followed his debut up with the greatest addition to his illustrious filmography – Memories of Murder. Arguably one of the best thrillers of the 21st century, the film recreates the atmosphere of paranoia and terror which was present when the first properly documented case of a Korean serial killer was broken to the public. Western masters of the genre like David Fincher owe a lot to Bong’s techniques since Fincher liberally borrowed from the Korean filmmaker’s sensibilities while making projects like Zodiac.
Following the global success of Bong’s later works like the 2006 monster flick The Host and the English language co-production Snowpiercer, Bong became an instantly recognisable figure in the landscape of world cinema, but his films were already being championed by vastly influential American directors like Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino. With the release of his 2017 opus Okja, Bong managed to convince the few remaining sceptics of the undeniable originality of his artistic vision.
Even though Parasite isn’t his best film, it is undoubtedly the most important in his oeuvre because it managed to introduce the brilliance of Bong Joon-ho to the broader world. It has to be said that the supposed “controversy” surrounding the Best Picture win at the Academy Awards actually contributed to the global recognition of Korean filmmakers other than Bong, including his New Wave contemporaries like Park Chan-wook and Lee Chang-dong, among others.
For a long time now, the Academy Award hasn’t really been the proper metric for identifying brilliant films, but they certainly took the right step by declaring Parasite as the winner of the coveted Best Picture category. By removing the distinction between foreign language productions and films made in English, the Oscar committee stood by one of the fundamental facts about the cinematic medium – cinema is a universal language.
Despite the fact that the Korean New Wave was treated as an isolated entity for a while, people are slowly realising how interconnected artistic sensibilities are. Bong, for one, grew up studying the films of Martin Scorsese and Guillermo del Toro. Therefore, the entire New Wave in South Korean cinema can be seen as an attempt made by the country to enter into a discourse with the New Hollywood movement as well as the Mexican New Wave.
Hopefully, Parasite’s monumental win will set a precedent for other foreign films to compete in the Best Picture category as well. Instead of indulging in the previous Anglocentric prejudice in the categorisations, which is evident due to the blatant otherisation, the Academy should stand by its statement that the Best Picture can come from any part of the world without being lumped into a separate category.