There is, in the Oscar prognostication game, no such thing as a sure bet. But as close as we’re likely to get this year is Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” receiving South Korea’s first-ever best international film (formerly best foreign language film) Academy Award nomination. In 2018, Lee Chang-dong’s brilliant “Burning” was the first South Korean film in 57 years and 30 submissions to get as far as the nine-film December shortlist, but it fell out of the final five in a competitive year.
The success of “Parasite” as a quadruple threat — domestically and internationally it has garnered both critical acclaim (and a Palme d’Or) and extraordinary box office returns of $112 million worldwide and counting — all but guarantees it will be spared “Burning’s” fate. Most commentators have filed that question under “asked and answered” and moved on to consider whether Bong’s deliciously dark class inequality satire has a shot, additionally, at a best picture nomination. If it does land one, expect a similar roundelay of back-patting and soul-searching as we got last year when Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” pulled off that rare double (in addition to other nominations), but also reminded us all that in the history of the Academy Awards, no foreign language film has ever won a best picture Oscar. Across its 91 ceremonies to date, only 11 non-English language films have ever even been nominated for best picture.
Last year’s “Roma”-for-best-picture scenario did provide trend watchers with a fascinating case study in inflated, and ultimately disappointed, expectations. But as much analysis as there has been about the impact of a subtitled film on the best picture field, there is far less about how being named in both best international film and best picture affects the former category.
Perhaps that’s because the sample size is small. Of those aforementioned 11 non-English language best picture nominees, only six were also foreign language Oscar nominees. Some were excluded due to release-date ineligibility (“Il Postino”), U.S. provenance (“Letters From Iwo Jima”) or, in the case of 1937’s “La Grande Illusion,” because the foreign language category did not yet exist. But among that set of six, the results are striking: Five took home the foreign language Oscar: “Z” in 1969; “Life Is Beautiful” in 1998; “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” in 2000; “Amour” in 2012; and “Roma” in 2018. The only film not to win best foreign language film having been nominated in both categories is Sweden’s 1971 entry, “The Emigrants,” and that was a unique case whereby its best picture nod came the year after it had competed in the foreign language category.
All this means that if, as seems increasingly possible, “Parasite” does score a best picture nomination in addition to a best international film nod, it is statistically very likely to take home the latter statue. And especially so as, beloved though it is, it seems unlikely to push quite as hard into the best picture conversation as “Roma” did, meaning the goodwill will likely be concentrated on its international film nomination (and any other nods it may pick up).
Plenty can change in the next couple of months. But if “Parasite” scores its double and looks able to repeat the pattern of previous years, it can’t help but dampen the hopes of the other nominees. And with the international film category coming under increased scrutiny following its misleading name change, the continuing viability of relegating the cinematic output of the entire non-English-speaking world to one complicatedly selected five-film category is already in question. It’s a small category to represent a big world, and in years fielding a “Roma,” an “Amour” or, as seems likely, a “Parasite,” it can feel even more cramped.