On a historic night, Parasite became the first foreign-language film to win Best Picture during the 92nd Academy Awards ceremony. The accolades for director Bong Joon-ho’s rousing social critique didn’t end there; as the film won the newly minted Best International Feature Film (formerly Best Foreign Language Film), Bong received the second-ever Best Director win for a foreign-language film after Alfonso Cuarón was honored for Roma 11-and-a-half months ago, and Parasite became the sixth foreign-language film to take home Best Original Screenplay.
Parasite’s record-breaking and precedent-setting wins are thanks to the Academy’s unambiguous response to the South Korean film’s brilliance, but without crucial predecessors to lay the groundwork, Bong’s masterpiece may have been snubbed outside of the Best International Feature Film category. Artists like the Italian Federico Fellini, Swedish Ingmar Bergman, and Japanese Akira Kurosawa are instrumental to film study, and without international auteurs like them, and a handful of glass-ceiling shattering films, Parasite may have been robbed of Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture.
The first Best International Feature Film Oscar was handed out as an honorary award in 1947. It must have genuinely bewildered voters and Swiss Oscar recipient Richard Schweizer when he won Best Original Screenplay at the 1945 Oscars.
The film stars Josiane Hegg as Marie-Louise, a French girl who flees her country when Nazi occupation begins. A rich Swiss family takes Marie-Louise in and spoils her rotten, forcing her untimely return to France. The role is Hegg’s only known film credit.
Fellini’s surrealist, avant-garde classic won Oscars for Best International Feature Film and Best Costume Design (black-and-white). (At the time, categories like costume design and production design were divided by color and black-and-white cinematography.) In addition, 8½ was nominated for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Art Direction—now referred to as Production design—(once more, in black-and-white).
8½ would lose Best Director and Best Picture to the peculiar Tom Jones and its director, Tony Richardson. That decision has aged like a fine gallon of 2%, but Fellini was rewarded in the Best International category, preventing me from relitigating another Oscar blunder. Italy reigns supreme in the foreign-language category with 14 wins.
Fellini was the fourth director to receive a nomination and the fourth consecutive nomination for a foreign director. All told, eight foreign-language directors were nominated for Best Director in the ‘60s, matching the ‘70s for the most in a single decade.
Fanny and Alexander (1982)
Parasite’s four Academy Awards is a record that has been equaled twice. Bergman’s historical epic, Fanny and Alexander, was the first to achieve the feat. Wins in Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design, and International Feature made the Swedish film a force to be reckoned with at the 56th Oscars. Prior to Fanny and Alexander, no foreign-language film had ever won more than two Oscars.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
Eighteen years after Fanny and Alexander and 19 years before Parasite, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon danced and meleed its way through the treetops to four Oscar wins and more than $125 million at the U.S. box office. Ang Lee’s martial arts drama introduced American audiences to film globalization. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s record-setting 10 Oscar nominations were the most for a foreign-language film until Roma matched the total in 2018.
Because the Academy does not release voting tallies for the Oscars, it’s impossible to definitively say how close a race was, but it’s reasonable to assume that last year’s Vegas favorite came agonizingly close to winning Best Picture. Instead of setting the historical benchmark itself, Roma won Best Director and Best Cinematography (both for Cuarón) and created a groundswell of momentum that may have aided Parasite in overcoming the foreign-language stigma.
From 2013 to 2018, Cuarón and his friends and countrymen Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro Iñárritu won five of the Academy’s six Oscars for Best Director. Although they won for English-language films (with the exception of Roma), the men are known for their work on Spanish-language films like del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, Iñárritu’s Amores Perros, and Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También.
Parasite’s foreign-language film forebears made its Oscar coronation possible. The film need not sacrifice any of its own hard-earned golden statues in gratitude, but in the words of the inimitable Bong: “I would like to get a Texas chainsaw, split the Academy Award into five, and share it with all of you.”