Parasite winning big at the 2020 Oscars marked a major turning point for Hollywood in a variety of important ways, chief among them that it was the first ever non-English language film to win Best Picture, as well as the first Korean movie to do so. Bong Joon Ho’s much-deserved Best Director win was also a major, and long overdue, moment for representation. What all of the positive attention and acclaim this movie has been afforded means for Asians worldwide, and Asian-Americans in particular, has been discussed extensively, and very intelligently, by those with personal experience on the topic. Hopefully, it’s kick-started a bigger conversation, too.
While Parasite‘s big night, and its awards success across the board (four wins total, out of a possible six), along with the almost universal critical acclaim for the film, is clearly a major moment for Asian cinema, it’s also an indication that the Oscars are maybe, just maybe, finally welcoming horror into the fold. True, Parasite isn’t an out-and-out horror movie, also encompassing elements of comedy, drama, romance, and thriller, by director Bong’s own admission, but compared to the likes of 1917, Jojo Rabbit, and, yes, the ghastly Joker, it’s the weirdest of the 2020 Best Picture nominees by a wide margin.
The last time there was a sense that horror might finally be getting its due was back in 2018, when Jordan Peele’s near-perfect social satire, Get Out, was nominated for four Oscars and ended up winning one, for Best Original Screenplay (funnily enough, Parasite also nabbed the same gong this year). These movies have several, notable traits in common, from their horror being rooted in real-life trauma and the terrible things human beings do to each other, to their handling of class struggle and societal division, and even their pitch-black strands of deadly serious (“I’m deadly serious“) humor. Both Parasite and Get Out, crucially, are original stories from unique voices, of the kind hitherto totally ignored by Hollywood.
There will be those who argue that the great Guillermo Del Toro, long a hero and icon of horror, and whose Shape of Water, which won Best Picture in 2018, was another victory for the genre. But that film, odd as it was, still trafficked in a rose-colored view of the Hollywood golden age. The Shape of Water was the safe choice, particularly compared to the rest of Del Toro’s monster-filled back catalogue. Still, it’s understandable that, as horror fans, we want to glom onto anything we can (you can apply this same logic to Black Swan‘s Best Actress win for Natalie Portman in 2011 — it may be shocking and dark, but it ain’t a horror movie, pals).
True, Parasite won’t scare horror fans the way it’s freaking out the mainstream crowd (virtually every pull-quote included in the legitimately creepy trailer screamed some variation of “Shocking!”). There way be some, myself included, who feel as though it could’ve pushed its violent final act even further. But, let’s be real, that nagging feeling is a result of us all watching way too much messed up stuff to really judge what’s actually shocking anymore. To everybody else, who’s normal, Parasite‘s third act is a roller-coaster of shocks and gulps. Taken from that perspective, it could even be considered a genuinely scary movie.
The one shot that frightened the pants off yours truly has to do with a child mistaking an intruder for a ghost. Shrouded in darkness, the man huddles on a staircase where only his white eyes are visible to the kid, who’s stuffing his face with cake at the time. It’s a stomach-dropping moment, intense in how quiet and utterly unexpected it is. The child’s open-mouthed terror is our own as we watch this seemingly otherworldly shape emerge from the darkness. Even though it’s clear this is another human, the moment is charged with supernatural energy. If nothing else gets hardcore horror fans, this visual certainly will (it’s stayed with me since, particularly when I’m alone in my apartment).
Elsewhere, the throbbing electro score ensures Parasite retains a sense of impending doom throughout, even in its mundane moments of domesticity. Whether it’s the darting looks shared between rich and poor as the former, quite literally at certain moments, turn their noses up at the latter, or the alarm that registers when an unwanted visitor appears in the middle of a rain-storm (a classic horror movie trope), ready to foil the hustle at the center of the movie, the film exists on a knife’s edge. The razor-sharp social commentary questions what it really means to be a good person (“They’re nice because they’re rich,” we’re sharply reminded by one of the characters) but the great crime at the film’s core is the Have Nots simply wanting as much, if not more, than the Haves.
Director Bong has previous with horror, of course, so it’s not surprising Parasite feels as dark as it does (and in spite of the many sunny sequences, too). When the violence the movie’s been hinting at throughout finally erupts, in gloriously bloody fashion, it’s not so much a relief as a further knot in our collective stomachs. Rather than tie everything up neatly, as Hollywood-acceptable films are wont to do, director Bong instead gives us a sort-of happy ending before yet another rug pull reveals it’s all fantasy. Considering The Shape of Water ended with its human protagonist growing gills so she could be with her fish lover forever, Parasite‘s cynical denouement, and The Academy’s warm acceptance of it, feels even more subversive.
In the wake of #OscarsSoWhite, there’s been a conscious attempt, at the very least, to diversify the voting group’s ranks. It hasn’t yet led to much female or black representation in the nominees, and the wins this year were mostly predictable (Brad Pitt for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood? Really? The movie where he plays a smarmy, woman-killing asshole?) but Parasite walking away with four gongs at least signifies things are changing, however slowly. Horror has long been the bastard child, the weirdo, the punk rock kid logging spitballs from the back of the classroom, and that designation suits the genre to a certain extent (the weirdest work will probably always be done in the indie world, where there’s no money and, by extension, no limits). But there’s no denying horror deserves more recognition on a greater scale.
This past year alone, we’ve had several movies and performances that easily could’ve been nominated for Oscars from the likes of Us, Midsommar, and The Lighthouse, if we’re purely thinking high-brow (let’s not go crazy, the Academy is probably never going to recognize something like Bliss, which is a real shame). There’s a sense that horror is moving towards more intelligent, weirder stories rooted in real-life traumas, whether based around racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, or any other number of too-prevalent social issues. The more of these stories that get told in genre movies, the less the Academy is going to be able to ignore them. Oscar wins for Parasite, and Get Out, too, suggest things are finally changing for the better. And, as much as we want to protect our beloved little freak creature and keep it all to ourselves, sharing it with the world means more of these movies actually get made, which can only be a good thing.