K-Pop goes the Oscars!
WRY BREAD - Philip Cu-Unjieng (The Philippine Star) - February 23, 2020 - 12:00am

For those of us who have a passion for world cinema and the arts, the aftershocks of Oscars night and the resounding Parasite triumph can still be felt. For auteur Bong Joon-ho, the Best Director, Best Foreign Picture, Best Original Screenplay (shared with Han Jin-won) and the much-coveted Best Picture have to be seen first as personal triumphs for his cinematic vision, then as significant victories for the South Korean film industry and Asian cinema.

While a lot of us in Asia were rooting for Parasite, we were ready for disappointment, as never in the history of Oscars had a film set in a foreign language won Best Picture. But there’s always a first time, and with history being made, we’re now witness to this having happened. And not with some French, Spanish or Italian-speaking film, but with a film that speaks the language of the K-Pop and Korean telenovelas we here in Manila can’t seem to get enough of. That’s good-crazy!

I’ve followed Bong Joon-ho’s career for several years now, having loved The Host, Snowpiercer, and his Netflix’s Okja. Those three films liberally mixed fantasy elements with wry humor, trenchant social commentary, and in the case of The Host and Okja, real-life situations. A departure from these prior films, Parasite was deeply rooted in modern social realism, touching on class, the have’s and have-not’s but doing so in a manner that flipped film genres, and continuously surprised us, the audience. Constantly pulling out the rug from under our feet, the film started off as a scam film, then went suspense/thriller, then descended into numbing “Grand Guignol” madness. It was a roller-coaster joyride of a film and it’s not surprising that Cannes 2019 awarded it its Palme d’Or.

On Philippine social media, a number of comments were made about when and why a Philippine film would achieve this kind of recognition. Some even suggesting that our filmmakers were just as deserving as Bong Joon-ho, if not better. I found that hilarious, as what Parasite has achieved is without comparison for now. Beyond Best Foreign Picture, which the film industry of every country in the world vies for, Parasite has set a new benchmark that says: “My film can be true to its foreign essence and identity, and still be so universal that Hollywood declares it the Best Film of the Year.”

A tentative foot in that particular door was made when Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma on Netflix made it to the Best Picture nominations list last year. Roma was a Cuaron love poem to the domestic who raised him; and when you think about it, both Parasite and Roma dwell on the “upstairs, downstairs” dynamic. But Parasite gives the dynamic a subversive and satirical twist (of the knife), and goes beyond.

When receiving his Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, Bong commented, “We never write to represent our countries, but this is very first Oscar to South Korea.” And in that first part of the quote, lies one key to why Parasite struck such a nerve globally. It’s not about thinking “For South Korea (or the Philippines),” but about creating compelling storytelling coupled with technical mastery — two things that Parasite has in spades. The twists and turns of the storyline keeps you at the edge of your seats, and the set design alone of the upscale home, the camera angles produced, are a technical marvel that help make the narrative so effective. And mind you, Bong brought home Parasite at a budget 1/5th of what he got from Netflix for Okja (it’s reported he got $50 million for Okja).

But let’s call a spade a spade, the considerate money spent by Neon (Parasite’s distributor) to keep the film on the radar was a promotional success. It could have been easy to merely rest on the laurels of victory at Cannes, but the Korean producer and international distributors knew that Cannes was just Step 1. At every awards show of 2020 starting with the Golden Globes in January, Bong and his cast were in attendance, building up steam for awareness, recognition, and reward. For a foreign film, that kind of investment is a must as you’re looking at a steep, uphill battle to outrank and outscore the films in the English language that will immediately be more accessible to the various Guild voters of Hollywood.

Filipino film director Lav Diaz has won Venice’s Golden Lion, and has a very personal, idiosyncratic cinematic vision — but admittedly, he’s an acquired taste, and beyond true cinephiles, not many will have watched his films. I liked Mikhail Red’s Dead Kids on Netflix, and he seems as good a bet as any to snag that first for the Philippines in the not-too-distant future. His storytelling is sound, and his films have commercial savvy; crowd-pleasers that still carry social commentary. He would be one to watch.

Parasite and Bong Joon-ho didn’t “happen” overnight. He has spent years mastering his craft, and Parasite is a culmination of those fallow years. Of course, we can and should dream that some Filipino filmmaker will one day achieve as much, but it will take more than mere wishing, for it to be so. And like Parasite, it will be a film that’s genuine in context and identity, and yet possess universality, transcending nationality and borders. With a budget a shade under $11 million, Parasite has already earned over $175 million, and it’s set for wide release in the US after its Oscars haul. You can’t get much smarter in terms of marketing a film than that.

K-POP PARASITE
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