Oscars 2020: Parasite triggers great upset as cult Korean film wins best picture

Saoirse Ronan misses out; Brad Pitt and Renée Zellweger take home Academy Awards

Triggering one of the great upsets in Oscar history, Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite, a social satire wrapped in a farce, won best picture at a busy, rain-drenched ceremony on Sunday night. The Korean film, already a cult hit, is the first in a language other than English to take the prize.

The picture has been on the radar since winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes last May, but few then reckoned it could break the Oscar bias against nonanglophone productions. Parasite won the most Oscars, four in total, in a ceremony that looked, for much of its duration, to be offering few surprises. It also becomes only the second film (after Marty, in 1956) to win the Palme d'Or and the best-picture award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

There was domestic disappointment (if little genuine surprise) when Saoirse Ronan, nominated for Greta Gerwig's Little Women, lost best actress to Renée Zellweger for her showy turn as Judy Garland in the indifferently received Judy. This was Ronan's fourth nomination. She will return.

Who would have predicted that, after 92 years, the first nonanglophone winner would be not French, Japanese, Italian or German but Korean?

Sam Mendes’s 1917 had been a heavy favourite after triumphs at Bafta, the Directors Guild and the Golden Globes, but there did, at least, seem a possibility that it might lose to Bong’s searing semi-comedy.


Parasite's first triumph of the evening, for best original screenplay, allowed the director and Sharon Choi, his loyal translator, another chance to work through a charming double act that has been winning fans throughout awards season. "Writing a script is always such a lonely process," Bong said with Choi's assistance. "We never write to represent our countries. But this is very personal to South Korea."

Parasite is the first film not in English to win best original screenplay since Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her, in 2003. Bong’s film also became the first Korean release to win best international picture (formerly best foreign-language film).

His tribute to Martin Scorsese after taking best director was the most moving moment of the evening to that point, but the best-picture win brought the entire house at the Dolby Theatre to their feet.

It was a remarkable triumph for a nation whose film culture has been on a sharp rise. Who would have predicted that, after 92 years, the first nonanglophone winner would be not French, Japanese, Italian or German but Korean? When the lights went down on the cast and crew, the audience demanded that they be brought up again.

The acting awards looked sewn up weeks ago, and, sure enough, the predicted performers all won. Zellweger celebrated her second Oscar by paying tribute to Judy Garland, who never won a competitive Academy Award. “You are certainly among the heroes who unite and define us, and this is for you,” she said.

Joaquin Phoenix won best actor for a noisy, scenery-chewing lead turn in Todd Phillips's Joker. His speech was characteristically passionate, touching on human rights, racism and vegetarianism. He ended with a sincere, choked tribute to his late brother River Phoenix. "When he was 17, my brother wrote this lyric; he said, 'Run to the rescue with love, and peace will follow,'" he said. Somewhere in there he managed to also mention the artificial insemination of cows and the exploitation of their milk products.

Brad Pitt took best supporting actor for his notably weighty role (colead, in truth) opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood. This was Pitt's first acting award from the academy after winning one as producer when 12 Years a Slave took best film, in 2014.

He seemed visibly moved as he paid tribute to Tarantino and took a dig at the United States Senate’s failure to call witnesses at the recent impeachment trial of President Trump. “They told me I only have 45 seconds up here, which is 45 seconds more than the senate gave John Bolton this week,” he said.

Laura Dern’s turn as a ruthless lawyer in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story secured her the statuette for best supporting actress. The daughter of the actors Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd, Dern delivered the sort of disciplined speech you’d expect from Hollywood royalty. “Some say never meet your heroes. But, I say, if you are really blessed you get them as your parents,” she said. Her mother sobbed as Dern expressed her gratitude.

'Cynthia Erivo is here tonight,' Chris Rock said. 'Cynthia did such a great job in Harriet hiding black people that the academy got her to hide all the black nominees'

Eímear Noone, the acclaimed Galwegian composer, became the first woman to conduct at the Academy Awards. Dressed in a spectacular gold affair from the Irish designer Claire Garvey, Noone was in charge as the orchestra played through selections from the five films nominated for best original score. "I am thrilled to wear the work of Claire Garvey," Noone told The Irish Times. "I have worn her before, and she just belongs there." She will surely not mind too much that Sigourney Weaver pronounced her forename as "Eh-meer".

Appropriately, that award went to a woman: Hildur Guðnadóttir for Joker. “To the girls, to the women, to the mothers, to the daughters, who hear music bubbling within, please speak up. We need to hear your voices,” the composer said. She is the first Icelandic person to win an Oscar.

The show worked hard to compensate for the much-discussed lack of racial diversity among the acting nominees and unbroken maleness of the directing nominees. In an imaginative opening number that went back to the old habit of dancing through versions of the best-picture shortlist, Janelle Monáe expressed pride at being “black and queer”. Idina Menzel’s version of Into the Unknown, from Frozen II, nominated as best original song, involved collaboration with the singers from around the world who had dubbed the role of Elsa. The win for Hair Love, an African-American production, in best animated short was greeted with particular enthusiasm.

Proceeding without a formal host for the second year running, the show was otherwise efficient and amusing. The early duologue between Steve Martin and Chris Rock, both former hosts, was particularly sharp. "Cynthia Erivo is here tonight," Rock said. "Cynthia did such a great job in Harriet hiding black people that the academy got her to hide all the black nominees."

Musical acts also included a storming performance of Lose Yourself, a former winner of best song, from a bearded Eminem and a rendition of The Beatles’ Yesterday from Billie Eilish over the In Memoriam section.

The 2020 awards will, however, be remembered always for a joyous best-picture victory that secured the academy credibility and relevance after a few difficult years.