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Why anything less than a Best Picture Oscar for ‘Parasite’ is not enough

The South Korean parable about class war is beloved but not the favorite for the Academy’s highest honor. Why ‘Parasite’ deserves it. (Warning: spoilers!)

Why anything less than a Best Picture Oscar for ‘Parasite’ is not enough
(Left to Right) Woo-sik Choi, Kang-ho Song, Hye-jin Jang, and So-dam Park in Parasite. [Photo: courtesy of NEON CJ Entertainment]

[WARNING: spoilers, spoilers everywhere.]

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An Oscar is so metaphorical. It can mean a coronation, a memorial, reparations, and much more. In the case of Parasite winning one for Best Picture, though, it would mean a much-needed break with outdated tradition and an end to the Academy’s stigma against foreign-language films.

A lot of things are metaphorical in Parasite, director Bong Joon-ho’s popcorn-art house parable about class war. The staircases are metaphors, great for standing above or below another person. So are scholar’s stones: They either conjure wealth or can be used for bludgeoning in a pinch. Even cake is a metaphor for recovering from trauma, although the one in the film just may be history’s least successful trauma-recovery cake.

One could spend multiple viewings deconstructing these metaphors, and the reasons why Ki-woo (Choi-woo Shik) repeatedly, incorrectly calls some of them out to us in the audience. Beneath the veiled layers of meaning, though, lies a simple if twisty tale, impeccably crafted, and worthy of all the hyperbolic praise that critics have ascribed to it in the past year.

Parasite is nominated for six Oscars at Sunday night’s ceremony, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay. And yet, despite winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes last spring and a Best Original Screenplay award (for Bong and co-writer Jin Won-han), at last weekend’s WGAs, Parasite is still not favored for Best Picture and might also be denied the other major awards, relegated to settling for Best International Feature. 1917 is the odds-on favorite for Best Picture and Best Director for Sam Mendes, according to Las Vegas bookies, while Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood could net a third Best Original Screenplay trophy for Quentin Tarantino. (Hollywood loves to celebrate stories about Hollywood.) Since La La Land, the odds-on favorite of 2017, was vanquished by Moonlight, the movie many thought deserved to win but didn’t stand a chance, Fast Company has been singling out the deserving Best Picture winner each year and making a case for why they should defy the odds.

Here’s why anything less than a Best Picture win for Parasite is not enough.

A story that is both incredibly of the moment and timeless

As I mentioned upon the November release of Knives Out, 2019 was the year of genre movies about class struggle. Even though Bong Joon-ho reportedly first conceived of Parasite in 2013, the film’s thematic gut-punch connects more solidly with U.S. audiences in 2019, as news about the amazing, record-breaking economy coincides with stagnant wages and GoFundMe healthcare. Our obsession with inequality finds its ideal avatar in the Kim family at the center of Parasite. One by one, each flawed, striving Kim scams their way into the employ of the aristocratic Park family, like a bunch of Anna Delveys. Although at first the Kims can’t believe their good fortune, gradually they come to realize that their meager gains can’t erase the impossible distance between them and the Parks, who will always need flawed strivers beneath them who are willing to scrap their weekend plans in order to carry off a whimsical impromptu birthday party.

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It’s a lesson hard-learned, though. While the Kims slowly come to terms with which station they occupy, they lack even a whiff of class solidarity. When Ki-taek (Song Kang Ho) hopes out loud that the Park’s driver, whom he has displaced, landed on his feet, his daughter Ki-Jung (Park So Dam) urges him, “We’re the ones who need help, worry about us.” After matriarch Chung-sook (Chang Hyae Jin) discovers the housekeeper she got fired, Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-Eun), living in a secret basement in the Park’s house with her husband Kun-sae (Park Myeong-hoon), the Kims look down their noses at them. Moon-gwang appeals to Chung-sook not to call the police, “as fellow members of the needy,” but none of the Kims are prepared to acknowledge this designation.

Like the immaculately structured Park house where the bulk of the film takes place, the film is built to show how the major class divisions reinforce each other and create further division within each level, in a way viewers might also see reflected in the news the second they leave the theater.

Sun-kyun Lee (left) and Yeo-jeong Jo (right) in Parasite. [Photo: courtesy of NEON CJ Entertainment]

A film that challenges our expectations

There was a reason the first wave of viewers tended to urge friends to go into this movie cold. (“Don’t read anything, just see it!”) With a title like Parasite from the director of metaphor-laden monster movie The Host, one could be forgiven for assuming a film whose trailer prominently features fumigation-ingesting might be a supernatural horror. And lo and behold, Parasite does eventually descend into horror. However, it also has elements of just about every other genre. Like a Mercedes that corners well, we glide from pitch-black comedy to upstairs-downstairs drama and dread-infested thriller. There is a surprise lurking behind every neatly dusted doorway, and each of them is well-earned and pays off.

What might be most surprising of all, however, is how Bong Joon-ho makes a symphony out of playing with viewers’ sympathies. We start out fully on the side of the Kim family. We can’t help but latch onto them early on as they clink beers to celebrate “the reconnection of our phones and our bounteous Wi-Fi” after doing some demeaning gig economy work together. But as we see them become class traitors in order to serve the Park family (who are also painted with shades of moral gray), our sympathies are tested. Whether or not you still identify with the Kims by the end, even after Ki-taek’s unexpected knife-thrust, they require a different kind of introspection from viewers than the antiheroes of prestige TV.

So-dam Park (left) and Woo-sik Choi (right) in Parasite. [Photo: courtesy of NEON CJ Entertainment]

Eminent rewatchability isn’t easy

Winning a Best Picture Oscar is a mark of posterity. It means that this movie will stand the test of time. One of the best indicators of how a film will age, though, is whether it holds up under multiple viewings. Beyond discerning what is or isn’t “so metaphorical” in Parasite, there’s a lot to gain from rewatching it. There are hidden rooms in this house, details unlikely to break through on an initial viewing. For me, the second watch is when I fully understood how much everybody is pretending to be something they aren’t. The Kim family, of course, is posing as a qualified tutor, an art therapist, a driver, and a housekeeper, but the Parks are all pretending, too. “Did you know Da-Song is faking it?” Park daughter Da-Hye (Jung Ziso) asks her fake-tutor Ki-woo about her brother, the precocious art genius. Meanwhile, the gullible Park matriarch, Yeon-Keo (Cho Yeo-Jeong), is constantly perpetuating a facade for her husband, whether it’s wiping away tears or rising from an idle nap the moment he returns home at night to play the chipper homemaker. She also lies about the reasons the housekeeper Moon-gwang no longer works for them. Her husband, Dong-Ik (Lee Sun-Kyun), in turn takes credit for “finding” the replacement housekeeper through a tip that Ki-taek provided, so that “I can play the good husband.”

This world runs on a system that only works if everyone is lying to each other, and to themselves.

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For instance, the patriarch of the Kim family, Ki-taek, considers himself a station above the basement-dwelling former housekeeper’s husband, keen-eared audiences learn the truth. Although Ki-taek, whose many failed businesses in the past include a cake shop, may or may not hear from the other room when the displaced housekeeper reveals that her husband also lost his money in a failed cake shop, viewers are less likely to miss it the second time out. Bong Joon-ho generously litters little details like these throughout both the film’s visual environment and its dialogue. The more you seek, the more you’ll find.

Breaking down the barriers

Parasite is only the 10th film with subtitles in the past 50 years to be nominated for Best Picture, and it would be the first-ever to win if it did so. Furthermore, no South Korean film has ever been nominated for an Oscar. (The Oscars aren’t alone in this exclusion; Parasite was also the first Korean film to win the Palme d’Or.) If Parasite wins Best Picture, it would send an unmistakable message that the Academy is willing and able to look beyond its own language and its own borders to recognize influential filmmakers from around the world at the peak of their powers.

Bong Joon-ho may not be holding his breath. He’s on the record as saying, “The Oscars are not an international film festival. They’re very local.” But make no mistake: It would mean a lot, metaphorically, if this film won.

Of course, sometimes an Oscar isn’t metaphorical at all. It’s just giving the best movie of the year the award it deserves.

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