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How Parasite Unlocked the Best Picture Door for Non-English Speaking Films at the Oscars

By Ben Spaeth


Photo: EW – Source


Parasite’s 2020 Best Picture Oscar win was a historic feat. No other non-English language film had ever won the award prior to Parasite. This has led many to wonder if Parasite has now finally opened the floodgates to a variety of amazing international films that don’t usually make the big rounds in the United States. American audiences and critics seem more willing to watch subtitled films now more than ever - and it’s about time. With the growth and popularity of international shows like Squid Game and Money Heist, it’s apparent that there is a strong market for international content in the United States. For the third straight year now, there has been at least one non-English speaking film nominated for Best Picture. Those three films being Roma, Parasite, and this year’s Drive My Car. Notably, each of these films are in a different language. Although Drive My Car doesn’t currently have the same Oscar buzz as either Roma or Parasite, it’s still Japan’s first film to be nominated for Best Picture. Even if Drive My Car ends up not winning this year’s Best Picture, Parasite’s historic win has now clearly established a precedent that non-English speaking films can indeed win big at the Oscars.


It’s also a good sign that actors and actresses are being recognized for non-English speaking roles. With Yuh-jung Youn winning best supporting actress for her role in Minari just this past year. It was strange that none of the actors in Parasite received nominations for their roles in the film in 2020. Parasite is certainly an ensemble cast, but it is uncommon to have a Best Picture winner not even have a single nomination in any of the acting categories, and especially when the performances were tour de force.


The academy has certainly come a long way from the #OscarsSoWhite movement. 39% of academy members now live outside the United States. And on the diversity side, this year’s Oscars are more diverse than they have been in a while. Three out of the five best actor nominees are people of color. Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi was also nominated for directing Drive My Car. The Power of the Dog director, Jane Campion, hopes to start a streak of female directors taking home gold with her nomination. Chloé Zhao won the award last year for directing Nomadland. This is the second directing Oscar that Jane Campion has been nominated for. If she wins she will be the third female to ever win best director. Denzel Washington also made Oscars history by becoming the most nominated black actor for his work in the title role of The Tragedy of Macbeth. And deaf actor, Troy Kotsur, made Oscars history as the first deaf actor to get a nomination for his incredible work in CODA. Hopefully, the increase in size of the academy and more diverse makeup will also lead to more non-English speaking films being nominated for the most prestigious awards. Gone are the days of “foreign language” films being relegated to their lone category.


But despite Parasite’s historic win, it might still be a somewhat uphill battle for the next non-English speaking film to win an Oscar. Running a successful Oscar campaign can be financially taxing given that most international films have smaller marketing budgets. Parasite was lucky enough to find strong domestic US distribution in NEON, and go onto becoming a box office success both in South Korea and in the United States. As of today, Parasite is the highest grossing South Korean film in the United States ever. It also is the fourth highest grossing non-English speaking / international film in the United States. On top of that, Parasite was also the first South Korean film to ever win Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. While the next big non-English speaking film might not need to hit all those same markers, it certainly wouldn’t hurt their odds.


The next big non-English speaking film that takes hold of the Oscars will likely utilize a streaming distribution model in the United States, considering the boom. As we’ve seen over the past few years, the global reach of streaming can drastically increase the chances of a film or TV show reaching virality. But when it comes to films in particular, unfortunately, while the United States audiences are becoming more accustomed to subtitled films, most still won’t see a non-English speaking film in theaters unless they’ve heard positive reviews or great word of mouth advertising. Both of which Parasite harnessed in its United States release. Nowadays, streaming allows films time to build an audience without worrying about initial box office numbers. And streamers like Netflix, who lead with the most Oscar nominations this year, certainly have more than enough marketing money to spend for campaigning.


However, with all that said, there’s also yet another truth to take into consideration - people are usually less inclined to sit through an entire movie on streaming, because they aren’t directly paying to see the content like they would be if they saw the film in theaters. The counter to this would be that any possible, non-English speaking Best Picture winner would have to be so undeniably great that once someone turned it on to watch it, they wouldn’t turn it off. By that, they would be in a strong position to beat out the English speaking competition that mostly has heavy marketing money behind them.


Ultimately, via the interconnectedness of technology aka the streamers, I am very hopeful that we will see more and more great non-English speaking films in the near future. I hope the academy realizes the impact it will have on the global film community if it continues to honor the achievements of non-English speaking films in the most prestigious categories. At the end of day, a great film is a great film, and its language or nationality shouldn’t be a hindrance to it receiving the same widespread recognition.