The 92nd Academy Awards will always be remembered for the unprecedented success of a non-English language film. Noted South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho’s comedy-thriller Parasite has created history by winning the Oscars for Best International Feature Film, Best Direction, Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture. This is the first time that a non-English language film has won the Oscar for Best Picture. Also, this is the first time that a winner of Best International Feature Film (earlier known as Best Foreign Language Film) has gone on to win Best Picture. In other words, Bong Joon-ho’s film has single-handedly changed the rules of the game. It all started with the Palme d’Or win at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival and the film has never looked back.
Interestingly, another Asian film, Shoplifters, had a great run last year after winning the Palme d’Or back in 2018. Directed by noted Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda, Shoplifters won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film last year. There is a clear shift in the attention the US is again paying to Asian cinema. It’s really something that has been unheard of over the last decade or so.
So what does Parasite’s run at the Oscars signify? Well, above everything else, Parasite’s big win at the 92nd Academy Awards has struck down the unsaid rule that a non-English film cannot win the Oscar for Best Picture. This means that now more and more filmmakers from across the globe will aim for greater glory at the Oscars. And naturally more producers would be willing to back such international ventures. Ultimately, this will greatly improve the quality of cinema.
This is also important because in the recent times a lot of critics and scholars have criticised Hollywood for its fixation for superhero films. Even filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Pedro Almodovar, and Francis Ford Coppola have criticised the banality of the tent-pole movies.
Asian cinema, with its rich sensibility, has attracted American filmmakers at crucial moments in history. The best example that comes to mind is perhaps that of Akira Kurosawa who inspired a whole generation of American filmmakers ranging from George Lucas to Steven Spielberg to Martin Scorsese. Also, a lot of American filmmakers have drawn inspiration from the works of Satyajit Ray. The best example that comes to mind is Wes Anderson who came all the way to India to make The Darjeeling Limited as a tribute to the legendary Indian filmmaker. In the ‘90s, the works of John Woo and Wong Kar-wai left a lasting impression on American cinema.
Now what makes the recent success of Parasite and Shoplifters really special, especially from the context of East Asian cinema, is the fact that the cinema in the region at large has been going through a lull of sorts. The younger generations of filmmakers are still trying to find their voice. “If one looks at the overall scene it becomes apparent that the cinema there has been going through a phase of crisis. I sense a huge transformation happening in the manner cinema is both produced and consumed. A lot of it has to do with the advent of digital platforms. If I just talk about South Korean cinema, then I sense that its glory days defined by the gritty works of the masters are not going to be seen in the near future. There is a growing influence of global trends with a whole new generation reacting to technology and digital lifestyles such as gaming. Now, some of it is very good but the gritty, realist kind of arthouse cinema is gradually going to take a backseat,” opines Dr Kaushik Bhaumik, Associate Professor, Cinema Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, who takes keen interest in Asian cinema.
While Bong Joon-ho belongs to an earlier generation of South Korean filmmakers, it is important to understand that he is among those few who have managed to constantly adapt themselves to the changing times. If Bong Joon-ho’s oeuvre has works like Memories of Murder, The Host, and Barking Dogs Never Bite, films like Snowpiercer and Okja (made for Netflix) are also an integral part of his sui generis body of work. “Bong Joon-ho who is younger than Koreeda has always played with genre but somewhere I feel that what we are witnessing is the end of something more traditional and beginning of something new. I think the younger generation of filmmakers will make a very different kind of cinema. And whatever new would come would look very different from the old. Also, the general trends are going to be very different and it’s bound to happen because the audiences are far more multimedia oriented. The digital is going to govern that in a big way. Let’s try to see that in the light of what Netflix is doing to India. Also, let’s look at the big production houses that have come in India and how that has affected the way films are made over the last decade. All of this is going to happen in East Asia as well. Of course, Bong Joon-ho will continue to make interesting stuff like most masters and especially with the success of Parasite he can also afford to make films the way he want to make them,” explains Bhaumik who was formerly Deputy Director of the Osian’s Cinefan Festival of Asian and Arab Cinema.
Parasite offers a very strong socio-political commentary on class divide and consumerism. Bong Joon-ho isn’t just entertaining us but he is also having a constant dialogue with the times that we live in. Among other things, the film also feeds us with loads of information about the aspirations of youth. “A lot of people are actually baffled by the film. Bong Joon-ho has a huge following. Some of his most loyal fans are a little taken aback by this film. I think the film can be described as a watering down of his general excessive style. But at the end of the day I don’t mind the film at all. I think it is extremely subtle and interesting, especially coming from him. Now, to be very frank, Korean cinema was never known for its realism. The few filmmakers who are into realism are a small niche and not many people are aware of them. With Parasite, Bong Joon-ho has gone into a very interesting space and although it’s subtle it is still has his signature, whether one talks about the pacing or the way the camera moves. I think he has got interested in the weirdness of real life itself. And one finds the film extremely eerie even though the kind of psychological elements that he presents are not extreme. The main thing running through the film is the pressures of money. What people do when they are in such situations and in that way it is similar to Koreeda’s Shoplifters. After all, we are talking about ordinary people doing some really weird stuff. You don’t know what exactly is going on in the beginning but then it all starts making sense to you. I think it is a reflection of the slow kind of madness that is entering the society. The ordinary people are so desperate that they are doing these weird things and yet on the outside they look so calm and composed. So I think this contrast between the external calmness and what’s going on inside is what draws one attention to the fact that madness is now slowly entering the ordinary life. And it’s true of both Parasite and Shoplifters,” asserts Bhaumik.
Now, the influence of Korean cinema on Bollywood films is something that’s well documented. One of the early examples of this is Sanjay Gupta’s Zinda which is an unauthorized remake of the South Korean film by Park Chan-wook titled Oldboy. Most recently, Salman Khan starrer Bharat was the official remake of the Korean film Ode to My Father. Mohit Suri’s Ek Villain is inspired by I Saw the Devil. Also, Suri’s Murder 2 is inspired by The Chaser. The Aishwarya Rai and Irrfan Khan starrer Jazbaa is a remake of Seven Days. Nishikant Kamat’s Rocky Handsome is the official remake of The Man From Nowhere. While Prem Ratan Dhan Payo is said to be inspired by Masquerade, Barfi! Is based on Lover’s Concerto. The Amitabh Bachchan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, and Vidya Balan-starrer T3EN is the official remake of Montage. “I think that there have always been particular directors who are big fans of South Korean cinema. Like Sujoy Ghosh watches a lot of Korean films and you can see that in his films. Earlier we have had filmmakers like Sanjay Gupta and Ram Gopal Varma. And other than that it is really a given that anybody doing horror would want to watch K-horror or even Japanese horror or Malaysian or Indonesian horror for that matter. But I think K-horror, along with the Japanese horror, has best succeeded in capturing the pathologies of a hypothetical society such as competition, greed, and the anxieties of the contemporary society in a manner that all societies were beginning to feel. So that’s how K-horror and J-horror became a part of the global scene because people somewhere recognised themselves in that along with, of course, Scandinavian horror. You see there is a dialogue going on between Scandinavian horror and Asian horror. But I feel the Scandinavian reality is too remote for Indians as it’s a very different society. On the other hand, Japan and Korea are far more relatable. But I feel that K-horror has become less productive that what it used to be in its heyday,” explains Bhaumik who feels that a lot of the changes in how the content is perceived over the last 5 years can be attributed to the rise of Netflix.
The dominance of the US on the kind of content we watch just cannot be overstated. OTT platform like Netflix are actually contributing to the growing American influence. But as the region-wise digital content becomes more widely available a lot of this will begin to change. However, that will take some time. “Right now there is a bombardment of content and so it is more about quantity than quality. And the majority of the content is of American origin. I believe that it will take about 4-5 years before we start seeing more region specific content in the digital space. Also I feel that Asian web series would be far superior to the run of the mill stuff that’s available for consumption, especially with regards to horror. I think Korea and Japan would do some very interesting stuff.
Now, the few Korean series that are available on OTT right now are nothing special but I have high hopes that over time some very good content would come up,” opines Bhaumik who believes that America is on the back foot right now, both financially and culturally.
East Asian filmmakers have always offered the world something unique and often it has created opportunities for the younger lot to further push the creative boundaries. Also, Asian cinema has always found ways to find a distinct voice. However, the dominance of Asian cinema has been on the wane for the last decade. “The Asian directors have been winning big awards for quite some time. But the 2010s weren’t exactly the best period for Asian cinema. And it can be attributed to the fact that masters like Hou Hsiao-hsien and Wong Kar-wai weren’t making many films. It was generally a period when a lot of big names in Asian cinema were finding it a little difficult to make films.
So in a way Bong Joon-ho managed to establish himself as a big name during the same period. It was a period of remapping as far as the Asian cinema in concerned but I feel that last few years have been very good with films like Shoplifters and Parasite doing so well on the international scene. Perhaps, this is an indication that a new Asian force is coming up. So this resurgence that we are witnessing is actually a great sign. Now, the Asians have always been very good at taking things from the global scene and utilising that to make their own stuff. So I cannot see a complete shift happening in terms of cultural values. Yes, there will always be the threat of Americanisation on all forms of art but I don’t think that it can happen beyond a point,” explains Bhaumik.
Asian creativity in the digital space is really something to look forward to. So far it hasn’t been explored but it’s only a matter of time now. “A great advantage that the Asians have is that so much of what we do digitally is actually Asian in nature. If you look at the digital media, you will notice a strong Asian influence on it. Also, I believe that Japan, China, and Korea are far better at doing digital things than the US. The Americans may have the hegemony and power but in terms of sheer craft and abilities, I think Asia is the centre of the digital world, for they understand the digital far better. If we look at American cinema, we do come across some good actors and directors but in comparison to the excitement that the Asian filmmakers bring to the table, the Americans pale in comparison. What makes a Wong Kar-wai so special is because looking at his film you can’t say if it’s popular cinema or art cinema and so the line fades. Just think of a film like Chungking Express. Beyond a few names in American cinema such as David Lynch one can’t really expect the same level of brilliance. So the real question is not whether Americanisation of Asian cinema will happen or not but whether cinema is the place where we would find the Asian creativity now or would it be somewhere else. Maybe we will see the best of Asian creativity in some other audio-visual medium. I think that’s the more important question,” sums up Bhaumik.