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Parasite’s Triumph is a Victory for International Cinema, but Has a Precedent Really Been Set?

It cannot be overstated how monumental Parasite’s Best Picture win may prove for the presence – and perceivable future growth – of international film at the American cineplex.  It is the first time in the Academy’s auspicious ninety-two-year history that a film outside the Anglophone world has been deemed worthy of the title Best Picture.  While obvious caveats for foreign film exist, like the inclusion of a best international film category, they have always felt like a crutch that impedes films of tremendous artistic, emotional, and historical value from winning Best Picture. The question confronting the Academy today is whether Parasite represents a genuine and profound shift, or if this year’s Best Picture winner is simply an outlier, rightfully noteworthy but otherwise nowhere near a harbinger indicative of future American tastes.

In the Academy’s history, a handful of foreign films have received the coveted Best Picture nomination, beginning with Jean Renoir’s masterful Grand Illusion in 1937. International films have long received praise from critics resulting in Oscar nominations, but have found less success with the average American filmgoer. President Trump even alluded to this disconnect when he asked why the winner was South Korean and opined about returning to the days of Gone with the Wind, over raucous cheers. Furthermore, America’s estranged relationship with foreign cinema may stem from a number of stereotypes including cultural dissonance and a distaste for subtitles, or more simply the economic realities of today’s average ticket cost.  

There are some notable exceptions where a foreign film effectively found consensus amongst cinephiles and general audiences by adhering to both artistry and spectacle. For example, the 1980s produced Germany’s Das Boot, which had tremendous reach with American audiences.  The early 2000s saw an abiding American fascination for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Both films furthermore found a lucrative second life on American television screens.  The Academy itself is having its own globalized evolution, having added some 842 new members from 59 countries this summer.

In a dash of rare discontent with its enduring filmic isolationism, the US appears ready once again to welcome a new international film into the zeitgeist. Perhaps a film like Parasite and its candid examination of South Korean social class divide has found common cause with the tempestuous realities coursing through American society; resulting in a new and exciting relationship between the American moviegoer and international cinema.

The profusion of streaming services has also generated incredible exposure for foreign film and television within the American household.  Netflix’s decision to expand into the global marketplace has markedly improved the chances of an American discovering foreign film.  In fact, the company’s intrinsic interest in either producing or coproducing international film and television has incentivized it to bring these films to the attention of the US market. The fears of an inevitable streaming war could possibly damage this positive trend, as streaming services force themselves to consider the most optimal services in order to keep themselves afloat, but this influx could also conceivably expand and create many positive benefits for the presence of foreign films in the US. 

As more and more Americans are seen transitioning from the theatre to the living room for cinematic entertainment, one may find that the preponderance of negative stereotypes associated with the American relationship to international cinema beginning to ebb or erode entirely. If such a positive appraisal proves true, one could see many future foreign films nominated for Best Picture and conceivably even win. Mexico’s Roma was not only nominated for Best Picture last year but was even considered the favored contender for winning. That’s two years in a row and potential evidence that a trend is emerging, one possibly emboldened by streaming and Hollywood’s recognition of the necessity of outside markets to supplement its industry.

Parasite’s victory feels like a necessary course-correction that the world has been waiting for decades to happen; it shatters the consensus about what makes a movie a Best Picture and proves Americans are willing to embrace outside cinema. It may be optimistic to foretell the dawning of a new, equanimous relationship between the US and the hundreds of films made every year beyond its shores, but there is now precedent. Parasite implies in monumental ways that America may finally be realizing, as Bong Joon-Ho so rightfully said, that “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” It’s very likely America, with some trepidation, just successfully crossed that barrier. 

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Timothy Meyers

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