The six Academy Award nominations for Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” — a film with, in the director’s words, the “inch-tall barrier of subtitles” to overcome — make the ferociously entertaining satire the first-ever Oscar-nominated Korean feature. The first-ever Korean short film nomination happened approximately two minutes earlier, when Yi Seung-jun’s “In the Absence” got a documentary short nod. Nothing for decades then seven in one morning? Korea is having a moment.
That moment that has been momenting for some years. In 2016 Park Chan-wook’s widely adored “The Handmaiden” was passed over as South Korea’s Oscar submission in favor of Kim Jee-woon’s “The Age of Shadows” and whether for political or pragmatic reasons, it’s not every nation that has such a strong reserve bench. Just two years later, another critical darling, Lee Chang-dong’s sublime “Burning,” became the first Korean film to place on the nine-film January shortlist. The “overdue!” narrative may be complicated when applied to nations rather than individuals, but Korea’s been ripe for some best international film love for a while. (“Parasite” was also a surprise winner at the Jan. 19 SAG Awards, winning best ensemble, making it the first foreign-language film to win SAG’s highest-profile award.)
But being overdue for recognition hardly accounts for the breadth of “Parasite’s” cross-category success. In some part it’s clever campaigning, centering on Bong, who since his Palme d’Or win at Cannes in May has been a consistently delightful presence and a wonderfully wry ambassador for the Korean industry. Even the two “Parasite” craft nods benefit from and reflect back the Bong halo: editing nominee Yang Jinmo told Variety of his painstaking storyboards, while production designer Lee Ha-jun built the film’s flagship residence from Bong’s own floor plan.
Still, the greater part of “Parasite’s” success is less to do with craft than timeliness, which is handily contextualized by fellow nominee “In the Absence.” The documentary details the 2014 sinking of Sewol ferry and the enraging inaction of an emergency response system paralyzed by a very Korean deference toward the neglectful authorities. The avoidable loss of hundreds of lives — many of them high-school students — and the callous treatment of bereaved parents and traumatized civilian rescuers thereafter sparked an unprecedented wave of mass protest across Korea.
It’s hard not to see “Parasite” as “Absence’s” scathing fictionalized counterpart, buoyed by the same sudden tide of social awareness, and a 99%-er anger that resonates far from Korea’s borders. Cometh the hour, cometh the movie, cometh, perhaps, the big award? Let’s see if this mighty, masterful Korean breakout could also be an Academy breakthrough, as the first non-English-language film to stagger up from the international film basement into the best picture daylight.