Bong Joon-ho’s darkly comedic thriller Parasite took several of the top prizes at last night’s Academy Awards including the honor of “Best Director” and “Best Picture,” making history as the first foreign film to earn the Academy’s distinction. The film also took home the award for “Best International Film,” a symbolic rebranding of the now defunct “Best Foreign Language Film.” The South Korean film made history on several fronts, and rightfully so. Of the nominees, it was the best film of the year and deserved every accolade it won.
The plot of Parasite revolves around the lives of the Kim family, a husband and wife with their son and daughter, as they struggle to make ends meet. Together, they work low-paying gigs and pool their money to keep their lives stable in a small semi-basement apartment, complete with poor plumbing, bug infestations, and a window view of drunks urinating in the street. When Ki-woo, the son, earns a gig as a tutor for the daughter of a wealthy family, the family conspires to take advantage of Ki-woo’s new role as an opportunity to make life better for themselves, albeit deceitfully.
The Kim family plots to have the remaining staff of the wealthy family laid off and, one by one starting with Ki-woo as the tutor, recommend someone else from the family as a replacement but appearing as unrelated. Soon every member of the family has a new job working for the wealthy family, living adjacently to a life of luxury.
One evening, when the wealthy family is out of town, the Kim family shack up in the wealthy family’s house and live as though they owned the home. Drunk, and with food trash everywhere, they have nearly turned the pristine house into their semi-basement slum, proving that old habits die hard regardless of setting. When the wealthy family’s prior nanny makes a surprise visit to the house in a middle of a rainstorm, the Kim family learn that they are not the only ones feeding off the wealth and success of their employers and ultimately, for the sake of the film’s title, hosts.
Parasite is a clever and shocking analysis of class and social inequality. It serves as a reflection of modern capitalism, with individuals relying on connections to get ahead in life. And given that the remaining eight nominees for “Best Picture” featured well-known Hollywood juggernauts, seeing a fresh, international face garner such acclaim is refreshing. Especially at a time when tackling gender, ethnic, and racial inequality in entertainment was a top priority.
I was thrilled when Parasite took the top prize last night. The group I was with watching the Oscars with all let out shocked cheers when the announcement was made. We knew it was the best film of the year, but still felt like it was a longshot to earn the distinction of being the best film of the year.
When the awards were over, I was joking with my friends that the Korean movie about the poor family usurping the rich family winning the biggest award of the night was really funny. Think about it. For all the criticisms that Hollywood gets for being too white and male, the dark house foreign film swept most of the biggest awards. The foreign film usurped the biggest night in American film. The irony was rich, but then something started troubling me.
Chris Rock and Steve Martin were two of the first presenters and took some time to roast Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, about him being there. Martin proclaimed Bezos a great actor and followed that by saying “He’s got cash. When he writes a check, the bank bounce” and “Jeff Bezos is so rich, he got divorced and he’s still the richest man in the world. He saw Marriage Story and thought it was a comedy.” It was a funny joke and I laughed at the time. But when I left the Oscars party I was at and walked home, I was thinking more and more about that moment.
Amazon Prime has been making headway with content production and distribution, with titles that have earned accolades at the Emmys and Golden Globes, and it isn’t stopping there. Streaming media is not just changing the business of television, but film as well. Netflix had produced and distributed The Irishman, Martin’s Scorsese’s latest epic that earned several Oscar nominations (though no wins), thus proving that streaming media is changing the landscape of cinema. With Netflix paving the way for streaming media to earn recognition in Hollywood’s most elite circle, it stands to reason that Bezos wants Prime to get a piece of the action.
Bezos in the audience means that Hollywood is courting Prime to finance, produce, and distribute films. And I see that as being a big problem for more films like Parasite to earn the recognition they deserve.
It is getting increasingly difficult for smaller and more independent content creators to distribute their film. Major media conglomerates are absorbing, and sometimes dissolving, smaller studios and often serve as the gatekeepers. Where once were many commercially and critically successful media companies, there are much less now as only a handful of major media conglomerates control the vast majority of content production and distribution. It is getting increasingly difficult for independent filmmakers to get their films seen let alone be commercially viable or critically recognized.
A lot of jokes and comments were made during the ceremony about Hollywood’s issue with diversity and inclusivity. And it certainly does have an issue when it comes to gender, ethnic, and racial representation. Our entertainment needs more women and people of color on screen and in roles that are dignified with commercial and critical appeal.
However, the solution to solving Hollywood’s diversity problem cannot just be solved by adding more women and people of color to films. Hollywood is a business, and a very elitist one at that; a business built on nearly a century of systemic institutional flaws that where gatekeepers enforce a consistent status quo. Hollywood wants a to talk a big game about accessibility or how the stories they tell reflect people from all walks of life, but not if affects their bottom line.
So, the real solution to making Hollywood more inclusive and diverse and breaking down the big money that drives the industry and culture. It means keeping people like Jeff Bezos from earning so much power in the highest echelon of film. It means dismantling the institutional biases that allow the largest studios to remain unchecked. It means taking the money out of the awards circuit, with often the big winners being the ones who spent the most money. It is about taking the power from the few and transferring it to the many.
The ultimate irony is not that the foreign film usurped the American awards. It is that a film that condemns class struggle and inequality won big in the arena that is courting one of the richest men in the world, thus signifying the arrival of yet another conglomerate taking up space that could be reserved for elevating films from smaller studios. I really hope Parasite is a sign of true change and not an exception. If we really want to continue to see more groundbreaking, unique, and diverse films like that, Hollywood has to change on a deeply institutional level and not be swayed by big money.
Since this is a blog with music as its central theme, let’s pivot. While Parasite was not nominated for “Best Original Score,” the soundtrack to the film is stellar. Composed by Jung Jae-il, the soundtrack effectively captures the tension and conflict of the film. With many tracks from the soundtrack’s score really elevating the narrative quality of the film, with an aesthetic that symbolizes the score as a sort of character in the film, the needling piano and disquieting strings and drums allow you to immerse yourself into the house. You feel you are taking up space along with Kim family. The score feels uncomfortable and signifies that you don’t belong there.
Most notable in the film is the track “Soju One Glass” which plays over the film’s credits and closes out the soundtrack. Written by director Bong Joon- ho and sung by the film’s star Choi Woo-shik, “Soju One Glass” is the Kim family’s son’s declaration that he will buy the house he had helped to try to usurp. With the ending of Parasite being somewhat ambiguous, though reinforcing the wide inequity of class today, the song is a perfect extension of the film’s theme and the Kim family’s struggle. And much like Bezos infiltrating Hollywood, one’s dreams are at the mercy of someone far richer.