LOS ANGELES — Ninety-two years of Oscar history were shattered Sunday night when the South Korean hit “Parasite” became the first film not in the English language to win the Academy Award for best picture.
The class-struggle thriller faced stiff competition for Hollywood’s top trophy from movies that included Quentin Tarantino’s showbiz epic, “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” the billion-dollar comic-book film “Joker” and Martin Scorsese’s Netflix crime drama, “The Irishman.” But “Parasite,” directed by Bong Joon Ho, managed to pull off the final win in a moment that had audience members in the Dolby Theater leaping to their feet.
In honoring the film, which also won best director, original screenplay and international feature, voters managed to simultaneously embrace the future — Hollywood’s overreliance on white stories told by white filmmakers may finally be ebbing — and remain reverential to decades-old tradition: Unlike some other best-picture nominees, “Parasite” was given a conventional release in theaters. It has taken in $35.5 million at the North American box office since its release in October. Global ticket sales stand at $165 million.
“We never write to represent our countries, but this is very first Oscar to South Korea,” a beaming Bong said, partly through a translator, as he accepted the screenwriting Oscar with Han Jin Won.
The film’s seismic win came in wake of the #OscarsSoWhite protests in 2015 and 2016 that forced Hollywood to examine its systemic sidelining of minorities. Humiliated by the outrage that followed its failure to nominate any minority actors for Oscars at the time, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences vowed to double minority membership by 2020. In 2015, about 8% of the academy’s 8,500 voters were people of color. The percentage of minority members now stands at roughly 16%.
The comedy-thriller seemed to touch a nerve wherever it played, thanks to its tale of have-nots outsmarting the haves. At least that’s how it seems at first, when the struggling Kim family uses a variety of subterfuges to get jobs working in the household of the wealthy Park family.
The cast included Bong’s frequent collaborator Song Kang Ho as the impoverished patriarch, but the lack of nominations for any of the film’s stars renewed criticism that the academy frequently overlooks Asian actors. And “Parasite’s” best picture win was in keeping with tradition in one respect: no performer from recent Asia-set best-picture winners like “Slumdog Millionaire” was nominated either.
In pushing for more diverse voting ranks, the academy greatly expanded its foreign contingent, a necessity because Hollywood remains so overwhelmingly white and male. Last year, the academy invited 842 film industry professionals to become members, with invitees hailing from 59 countries. About 29% were people of color.
The celebration of “Parasite” follows a year in which Oscar voters seemed to retrench toward their conservative past. In a choice that prompted immediate blowback — from, among others, the director Spike Lee, who threw up his hands in frustration and started to walk out of the theater — the academy gave the best-picture Oscar last year to “Green Book,” a segregation-era buddy film. While admired by some as a feel-good depiction of people uniting against the odds, the movie was criticized by others as woefully retrograde and borderline bigoted.
Without the victory for “Parasite,” it was a rather poor year for inclusion at the Oscars. The academy barely avoided another #OscarsSoWhite debacle by nominating Cynthia Erivo (“Harriet”) for best actress. (She lost the award to Renée Zellweger for “Judy.”) Once again, all of the nominees for best director were men, despite it having been a banner year for female filmmakers.
With “Parasite’s” wins, Oscar voters slowed the rise of Netflix, which entered the night with a field-leading 24 nominations but left with only two prizes (for supporting actress Laura Dern in “Marriage Story” and the documentary “American Factory”) — a rebuke, perhaps, to the streaming giant for spending a sultan’s ransom to campaign for votes and for largely bypassing theaters with its films. Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” relentlessly hyped by Netflix as “one of the best films of the decade,” went zero for 10.
Many pundits figured the best-picture Oscar would go to the war drama “1917,” which had amassed the most significant trophies until now, including a Golden Globe for best drama and the top prizes from two major industry guilds, the Producers Guild of America and the Directors Guild of America. The last film to score with all three of those groups but still miss out on best picture was “La La Land,” which fell to “Moonlight” three years ago on Oscar night.
Still, “Parasite” has shown impressive strength all season, and not just at the box office. The movie won the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in May, the Golden Globe for best foreign film last month, the Writers Guild of America award for its original screenplay, and a best-ensemble prize at the Screen Actors Guild Awards — the first time in its history that the performers’ organization had given its top trophy to a foreign-language film. At that ceremony last month, the “Parasite” actors received a standing ovation when they came out to present a clip from the film, a sign that passion for the twisty thriller ran deep.
Bong, whose credits include “Okja” (Netflix) and “Snowpiercer” (the Weinstein Co.), proved to be one of the season’s most popular presences: A Golden Globes party touting “Parasite” even drew well-wishers from competing films, like the “Once Upon a Time” star Leonardo DiCaprio and the “Marriage Story” writer-director Noah Baumbach.
“We never expected all this,” Bong said then. But now that “Parasite” has made Oscar history, it’s clear that traditional expectations should be thrown out the window. In a post-”Parasite” world, the best-picture winner can come from anywhere.