Parasite, the low-budget Korean thriller directed by Bong Joon-ho, swept the biggest prizes at the 92nd Academy Awards, making history for a non-English language film.
At the movie industry’s biggest night, Mr Bong said he would “drink until next morning” as he accepted Best Picture, the most coveted award, beating films by Hollywood establishment legends Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino and the might of technology giants such as Netflix.
“When I was young and studying cinema, there was a saying that I carved deep into my heart, which is, the most personal is the most creative,” Mr Bong said, quoting Mr Scorsese.
In more than nine decades of the Academy Awards, no movie in a language other than English has ever won the big prize, Best Picture. Mr Bong has bluntly made reference to this before. Last year, he described the Oscars as “local” and he has urged audiences to overcome the “one-inch-high barrier of subtitles” required for foreign films.
There were nine nominees for Best Picture but the race had narrowed to two frontrunners that resided on the opposite ends of the cinema spectrum. The favourite according to online betting odds was 1917, Sam Mendes’s big budget, technically impressive war drama. But close behind was Parasite, a critically acclaimed Korean-language film chronicling classism through a family drama that slowly burns into a horror.
Mr Bong also won best director, and Parasite won Best Original Screenplay and Best International Film.
The big winners
Best Picture: Parasite
Best Director: Bong Joon-ho, Parasite
Best Actress: Renée Zellweger, Judy
Best Actor: Joaquin Phoenix, Joker
Best Supporting Actress: Laura Dern, Marriage Story
Best Supporting Actor: Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
South Koreans — many of whom were on their lunch breaks on Monday as news of the awards flashed across their smartphones — were ecstatic. Parasite is adored in its home market, not only for the acclaim it has garnered internationally, but because of its nuanced, authentic depiction of inequality in Korean society.
“In the past, I thought of the Oscars as something that was just for other countries, not Korea,” said Jeong Jin-young, an office worker in Seoul.
Ha Jae-keun, an arts and culture critic in Seoul, said Parasite’s success gives South Koreans, especially younger generations, “confidence in themselves as Koreans” and also taps into global concerns over the widening gap between rich and poor. “Parasite strikes people as being something they are closely related to,” Mr Ha said.
Parasite, released by indie distributor Neon, also fended off an extravagant awards campaign by Netflix. The streaming group started the evening with 24 nominations across seven films, the most of any studio.
Netflix has been pouring money into original films over the past few years, hoping to replicate the success it has had in television.
Oscars are currency in the film business. Netflix chief executive Reed Hastings told investors last month that there was a “business benefit” to winning awards for content. “We will win deals that we couldn’t have otherwise won,” he said.
But despite the extensive awards campaign, which reportedly cost the company up to $100m, Netflix was shut out of the big prizes. Instead, it won only two awards: best supporting actress, for Laura Dern in Marriage Story, and best documentary for American Factory, produced by the Obamas’ Higher Ground Productions.
The Oscars have been chastised in recent years for a lack of diversity in terms of nominees and winners. The Academy has invited more people into its ranks to tackle the diversity problem but its members are still 84 per cent white and 68 per cent male.
This tension weighed over the ceremony, as celebrities made jabs both subtle and overt. Only one black actor was nominated, which comedians Chris Rock and Steve Martin made light of. “Back in 1929, we had no black actor nominees,” Mr Martin said. “And now in 2020, we got one,” Mr Rock quipped.
In 92 years, only one woman has won best director. Kathryn Bigelow received the award in 2010 for The Hurt Locker in a field that included James Cameron’s Avatar. That was not going to change on Sunday, as only men were nominated.
Among the Academy’s biggest snubs was Greta Gerwig, the director of the latest adaptation of Little Women. The film was nearly universally adored by critics and made more than $170m at the box office. Little Women was up for Best Picture but Ms Gerwig was not nominated for Best Director.
Joaquin Phoenix won Best Actor as expected for his role in Joker, Warner Bros’ dark character sketch of Batman’s villain. Renée Zellweger won Best Actress for her portrayal of Judy Garland in Judy. 1917 won several technical categories, including sound mixing, visual effects and cinematography.
Additional reporting by Kang Buseong and Edward White in Seoul