On Sunday, the South Korean thriller Parasite made history as the first foreign-language film to take home Best Picture honours in the Oscars' 92-year existence—and deservedly so. The film is clever without being pretentious, engrossing without losing its savage sense of humour, and contains the kind of striking visuals that director Bong Joon Ho has become known for. At its core, though, Parasite is a nuanced and disturbing send-up of class dynamics in a country that has only seen its wealth gap widen through globalization.
Filled with historical references and in-jokes that only a Korean audience is likely to understand, Parasite indirectly takes aim at the hierarchical chaebol system (chaebols are massive family-run industrial conglomerates like LG and Samsung that dominate Korean economic life), and riffs on the notion of space as privilege in a country where half the population is crammed into a single metropolitan area.
So what explains its surprising crossover appeal?
By and large, North American audiences aren't big on subtitles, something Bong referenced in his Golden Globe acceptance speech last month, saying that, "Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films."
It could simply be the latest in the Academy's long-running effort to rehabilitate its image as a stodgy, out-of-touch institution that fails to reflect the diverse voices making up contemporary cinema today. It's true that the Oscars race in recent years has seemed to take on, as Variety writer Owen Gleiberman put it, "the intensely heated quality of a culture war." Take last year's Best Picture winner, Green Book, which sparked major backlash over what many viewed as its oversimplification of race relations in 1960s America, adding yet another "white saviour" story to a long line of them in Western cinema. While I'm sure the Green Book controversy played a part in the Academy's decision this year, I think it fails to fully explain how a biting satire intended more for the art house than the multiplex would go on to become the most successful Korean film in history—no small feat given how many excellent movies the country has pumped out over the past 20 years.
Parasite has clearly struck a nerve with Western audiences because, in my mind, its insightful examination of the ways class division disproportionately impacts those at the lower end of the totem pole is becoming even more resonant in our current economic climate. Bong represents this "trickle-down" effect beautifully in the film with reoccurring images of water. The torrential downpour that triggers the film's disturbing and violent conclusion is a minor inconvenience for the wealthy Park family, who watch the storm from the massive floor-to-ceiling windows of their sprawling hilltop mansion, while for the lower-class Kim family who works for them, the storm is catastrophic, flooding their basement apartment and ruining the few material possessions they own. In such a hierarchal urban landscape, there's only one way for the rain to flow: down. And in that way, the film also deftly critiques how the poor are forced to bear the brunt of the impacts of climate change.
One truly bizarre element of Parasite's unlikely global success has been watching how quick the Hollywood establishment has been to embrace it. Even with all its subtleties, Parasite doesn't shy away from exposing the ugly underbelly of capitalism and the ways it exploits the poor in order to prop up the privileged—a model Hollywood has employed to great effect for generations. The A-listers so eager to champion the film are either naive to its underlying message or convinced they're not the bad kind of rich people. That mirrors the obliviousness of the wealthy Parks in the film: they are so far removed from working-class life that they struggle to remember what it's like to ride the subway.
"Rich people are naive. No resentments. No creases on them," says the Kim family patriarch, Ki-taek.
"Money is an iron. Those creases all get smoothed out by money," replies his wife, Chung-sook.
While on the surface it may appear that Parasite is a distinctly South Korean film, its examination of the growing chasm between rich and poor is sadly more relevant than ever.