4 Academy Awards for BONG Joon-ho’s Unstoppable Hit
The long road has finally come to an end, and what an ending it was. Almost nine months after its May 21 premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, BONG Joon-ho’s history-making seventh feature PARASITE (2019) went the distance at the Academy Awards, where it became the first ever foreign language film to take home the coveted Best Picture Oscar. The film took home gold for the very first time for a Korean film and earned a total of 4 awards, more than any other film, at this year’s 92nd Oscar ceremony, held at the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles on February 9.
PARASITE (2019) was nominated in six categories at the awards this year, when previously no Korean film had ever scored so much as a single nomination. Early on during this year’s ceremony, the film made history with Korea’s first ever Oscar, when it picked up the award for Best Original Screenplay, for BONG and his co-writer HAN Jin-won. By beating out Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s Quentin TARANTINO, which had for most of the lead up to the Oscars been touted as the favorite, PARASITE (2019) set the stage for a thrilling showdown at the Academy Awards right until its final moments.
The acclaimed film was unable to convert its technical award nominations, as LEE Ha-joon lost the Best Production Design award to the favorite, with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood this time claiming the prize, and YANG Jin-mo lost to the team of Ford V Ferrari for the Best Editing Prize, which many thought would be a close race. Yet, soon after, it won its second award of the night in the Best International Film category, the award considered most likely to go its way.
Yet not long after that, viewers gasped when BONG Joon-ho was announced by presenter Spike LEE as the winner of this year’ Best Director Award, even though bookmakers odds were firmly in Sam MENDES’ corner for 1917. With just a few more prizes to be handed out, pundits wondered, could PARASITE (2019) really go all the way?
Jane FONDA took to the stage to present the nominees for Best Picture and then the answer finally came, as PARASITE (2019) made history by becoming the first foreign language film to win the top prize at the Academy Awards, with the award going to BONG and producer KWAK Sin-ae. It was the 11th foreign film to even be nominated in the category. All told, that gave PARASITE (2019) a total of four prizes for the night, the most of any nominated film, ahead of 1917’s three, the perceived frontrunner which ultimately failed to pick up any of the major prizes.
So how exactly did we get here? Director BONG was well-positioned to make a splash with his new film last year, following four acclaimed Korean films, among them a film frequently cited as the greatest Korean film of all time (Memories of Murder, 2003) and the holder of the title of most successful Korean film of all time for eight years (The Host, 2006), as well as two ground-breaking international projects (Snowpiercer, 2013; Okja, 2017) that brought him to the attention of legions of viewers around the world. PARASITE (2019) was widely tipped to secure BONG’s second invitation to Cannes’ competitive lineup, but no one could have imagined just how far it would go and how many barriers it would breach in the months that followed.
Things started in much the same way as they would continue, as PARASITE (2019) made history on the Croisette by becoming the first Korean film to ever win the coveted Palme d’Or prize. Many Korean films had competed there before, with PARK Chan-wook’s Old Boy (2003) coming closest with a Grand Prize win in 2004, but PARASITE (2019) truly broke through as a unanimously adored film, which viewers of varied tastes and backgrounds were swiftly able to connect with. With its latest bounty, PARASITE (2019) is only the second film, following 1955’s Marty, to triumph with the biggest prizes at Cannes and the Oscars.
Just five days after its win, PARASITE (2019) opened theatrically in Korea and buoyed by the frantic enthusiasm of the local press, the film opened to huge numbers and became a box office sensation, eventually managing to cross the vaunted ten million admissions mark, a level of success that was unexpected.
Yet what was truly remarkable was seeing how audiences leapt on the film beyond Korea’s shores. It was a Grand Prize winner at the Sydney Film Festival that month, but more impressive was its massive box office success in France, where it became the top-grossing Palme d’Or winner since Fahrenheit 9/11 in 2004, with USD 11.94 million.
Throughout the summer, the film became a hit in Australia, Russia and a number of Southeast Asian countries, but the biggest spoils were yet to come as the Fall got underway and the film launched its North American offensive, with high profile screenings at the Telluride Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival, Fantastic Fest and New York Film Festival ahead of its October 11 limited theatrical debut in Los Angeles and New York.
PARASITE (2019) earned USD 393,216 from its first weekend in three theaters, giving it the best per-theatre opening of the year, best ever for a foreign film, and best overall since the release of La La Land in 2016. Over the next 17 weeks, the film would continue to grow as it gained steam during the awards season, eventually achieving a wide release on 1,060 screens. By the night of the Oscars, the film had recorded USD 35.487 million, almost 14 times more than the previous record for a Korean language film (Roaring Currents with USD 2.59 million in 2014). Of course, now with its Oscar bump, the figure is set to fly much higher still.
Awards-wise, this quartet of Oscars joined an already over-stuffed cabinet that included Best Original Screenplay honors from the Writers Guild Awards and the British Academy of Film Awards (BAFTAs), a Best Director prize shared with Sam MENDES from the Critics’ Choice Awards, Best Editing for a Feature Drama at the American Cinema Editors Eddie Awards, Best Production Design - Contemporary Film at the Art Directors Guild Awards, and of course Best Foreign Language Film Awards from the Golden Globes, BAFTAs, Critics Choice Awards and Independent Spirit Awards, not to mention countless prizes from film festivals and film critics groups.
While awards season may now finally be over, it isn’t exactly the end of the road for PARASITE (2019). In the wake of its North American premiere, the film debuted in several European and Latin American markets, as well as Japan, and has clearly been benefiting from the global exposure afforded by its American awards run. It’s made almost USD 4 million in Mexico, USD 12 million in Japan, after just under a month of release, and it just scored the largest opening weekend for a foreign language film (outside of Mel GIBSON’s Apocalypto) in the United Kingdom, with over GBP 1 million in its first two days.
Congratulations to BONG Joon-ho and the whole team behind PARASITE (2019), a film that has cemented Korean cinema’s status as a powerhouse filmmaking industry, and will hopefully inspire new viewers to sample the country’s manifold cinematic treasures for generations to come.