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What It Means That 'Parasite' Won The Oscar For Best Picture


Last night at the Academy Awards, South Korean director Bong Joon-ho won fistfuls of Academy Awards for his movie "Parasite."


BONG JOON-HO: (Through interpreter) After winning best international feature, I thought I was done for the day and was ready to relax.

JUSTIN CHANG: I got to talk to director Bong last night. I think he was just incredibly surprised. The thing he just kept saying is this is crazy, this is crazy. (Laughter) I think he still could not believe it.

CORNISH: That's Justin Chang, film critic for the LA Times. We called him up to talk about "Parasite's" big night at the Oscars. And we started out with a quick fact check. Sure, director Bong was surprised his Korean language film did so well, as were most of us. But "Parasite" did well at the box office. He's a highly esteemed director. So was "Parasite" really such an underdog for best picture?

CHANG: Commercially, there was no - there was nothing holding it back. Critically, it was a huge success.


CHANG: ...Because of that language barrier, Audie, it's you know, 92 years where you've had non-English language films by Fellini and Bergman and Ozu and Kurosawa were all the rage when in some ways, you know, international cinema had even more of a foothold perhaps culturally. Never did one of those movies get close to actually winning best picture. I mean, you had things like Bergman's "Cries And Whispers," Jean Renoir's "Grand Illusion," which competed in 1938 - was up for best picture. It didn't win. And so it's - I think "Parasite" is the 12th non-English language movie, I believe, to be nominated for best picture. And it finally won. And it's really staggering because up until this year's Oscars, South Korea, I don't think, had ever been nominated for an Oscar in any category.

CORNISH: Can we talk about why that's a surprise? I mean mainly because they have a robust film industry.

CHANG: They have a very robust industry. And I think Korean cinema is just some of the most exciting in the world today. I see movies like, you know, "The Handmaiden" by Park Chan-wook, which was not even nominated a few years ago for, then, foreign language film; Lee Chang-dong with films like "Burning" and director Bong, who is, you know, probably the most commercially successful and internationally recognizable of these directors. And he also makes movies in a style that is really accessible, as we've seen with "Parasite," to viewers all over the world.

CORNISH: There are Americans who would be familiar with Bong Joon-ho - right? - because he was a director of "Mother" and "The Host" and "Snowpiercer" - right? - so films that did make it to American audiences. But how does he reflect the Korean film industry - Maybe the tone and style of films that have dominated there? And what does it mean for it to break through with something like the Oscars?

CHANG: Yeah. What's great and singular about director Bong is that he is a great ambassador for Korean cinema because in part - you know, he did the Hollywood thing, too, you know - and pretty well - better than most. He made "Snowpiercer" and "Okja" both with major Hollywood movie stars and predominantly shot in the English language. I think there's something really, really moving and really fitting about the fact that it was after he did that and he went back to Korean filmmaking - went back to his roots, per se, and made this very intimately scaled, modestly budgeted Korean movie - that this is where - it almost feels like this is where he found his purest voice. And it's really, I think, telling that this is the movie that has become his international sensation.

I think that there is something to be said for telling a story where you have complete control over something. And the story is very intimate in scale, but you have complete authority over the story that you're telling.

CORNISH: I feel like he quoted Scorsese about this - the idea of making something personal.

CHANG: The most personal is most creative is what he said. And he attributed that quote to Scorsese. He said that that came to him spontaneously. He didn't know what he was going to say. He locked eyes with Scorsese from the stage. He didn't even know where the other directors were sitting because when you're in the Dolby Theater, you don't know where your fellow nominees are. And they just happened to make eye contact, and that quote came to mind.

CORNISH: Justin Chang, film critic for the LA Times.

Thanks so much.

CHANG: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.