No matter what happens at Sunday’s 92nd Academy Awards, “Parasite” has already made Oscar history. Considering that no other South Korean film has even managed a Best Foreign Language (now Best International) Feature Film nomination in 92 years, the six Oscar nominations for Bong Joon Ho’s film — and it’s a serious contender in each of those categories, including Best Picture — has the potential to turn Oscar history upside down. But it is not only the film’s country of origin, subtitles, and South Korean cast and crew that makes it a unique multi-category Oscar contender.
One of the many awards “Parasite” has won this season came this weekend from the Art Department Guild, which gave it a Best Production Design prize. The win for production designer Lee Ha Jun was not a surprise, largely because the ADG has separate categories for Fantasy, Period, Animated, and Contemporary films.
Here’s what is surprising: “Parasite” has the rare chance to be a contemporary-set film to compete and win the Best Production Design Oscar. The overlap between winners of ADG’s contemporary category, and Oscar nominees, is nominal. Over the last 10 years, only the musical “La La Land,” the Mars-set space film “The Martian,” and the near-future sci-fi film “Her” received nominations. Contemporary settings tend to be overlooked; real-world contemporary settings are all but ignored.
When actors, producers, and filmmakers become Academy voters, there is a tendency toward myopia. Acting often needs to be big (bonus points for physical transformation or historical impersonation), sound needs to be sharp, psychological, or musical (war films, or anything involving singing and dancing has the leg up), and costume and production design need to be period or fantasy. All too often, subtlety is the enemy.
When costume designer Sandy Powell (nominated this year for “The Irishman”) won her third Oscar in 2010 for “The Young Victoria,” she used her moment in the actual spotlight to recognize the work her colleagues working on modern films.
“Well, I already have two of these, so I’m feeling greedy,” said Powell on the Kodak Theatre stage. “I’d like to dedicate this one to the costume designers that don’t do movies about dead monarchs, or glittery musicals. The designers that do the contemporary films and the low-budget ones that actually don’t get recognized, and they should do and they work as hard. So this is for you, but I’m gonna take it home tonight.”
No one questions Powell’s mastery, or her 15 nominations, but also no one can blame her and her top-notch art department colleagues for being drawn to fantasy and period world building. That’s where the money is. Not only in terms of salary, but also in the resources needed to practice the craft at the highest level.
Reading about the world Bong and Lee created for “Parasite,” you quickly realize the film’s greatness goes beyond the nominated script, the incredible ensemble cast, and Bong’s virtuoso camerawork, staging, and editing. The class themes baked into Bong’s vision are brought to life in its carefully built dramatic containers. The rich/poor, high/low, light/dark, cluttered/clean dynamics of this world become ingrained into each composition, turning simplistic literal ideas into complex cinema. The incredible staging, movement, and the way the three families (parasites) inhabit the host (the architectural marvel of the house) is inseparable, and made possible, by the stage built for them.
The time and resources Lee had to execute this masterful plan — namely, building that house from scratch as an “open” or outdoor set — is rare for any contemporary drama, regardless of country. It’s important to award this element of craft, beyond its obvious merit, because it recognizes what a vital part it played in the success of “Parasite.”
Love it or hate it, awards season is an important part of the movie business. It’s one of the only reasons distributors are still spending hundreds of millions putting prestige medium-size films into theaters, and that streamers are backing the personal visions of a Scorsese or Cuarón. In picking which films to make, and assigning budgets, awards play a role. Money is spent on period recreation because awards voters reward that investment. It’s a business built on precedent.
There’s a reason great artists are drawn to the past to tell stories that ultimately are about today. That’s an artistic vein that won’t and shouldn’t go away, but it’s also an unnecessary limiting of filmmakers’ palette. In reality, some of the most exciting film movements that pushed the medium forward have been grounded in the now. And while it would be amazing if the success of “Parasite” opened the commercial and awards-season doors for more subtitled films here in the U.S., recognizing elements of its craft could be just as gamechanging.
Indie production designers do remarkable work turning pennies and existing locations into expressive dramatic spaces, but the palette for non-fantasy contemporary films remains limited by resources. If a celebrated director can pitch a film and reference the Oscar-winning Park house from “Parasite,” it could be a step in the right direction to open up our cinematic canvases.