Now the soju and champagne has stopped flowing following Bong Joon Ho’s unprecedented multiple Oscar win with Parasite, producers and filmmakers across Asia, if not the rest of the non-English-speaking world, are pondering when it’s going to be their turn.
In Asia, the fact that a Korean-language film has taken home best picture and three other gongs from the world’s biggest awards ceremony, has resulted in jubilation and no doubt inspiration among filmmakers from Mumbai to Tokyo. But my social media feed suggests it has also prompted a lot of soul-searching among producers who sound more positive than they did before last weekend, but may also be feeling that they’re still not much closer to the grand prize.
On the bright side, it does appear that Academy voters are now more open to non-English language films. The mood started to shift as soon as Bong took a pop at the US’ resistance to the “one-inch tall barrier of subtitles” – and let’s be honest, he was talking about the US, as no other country is as resolutely monolingual, with the possible exception of the UK. But films won’t win Oscars by virtue of being foreign-language. They need to fulfil a certain set of criteria, chief among which is to be relatable to global audiences, and in order to do that they need to emerge from a certain kind of ecosystem. And in that regard South Korea is a special case.
As anyone working in the Asian film industry knows, a Korean Oscar winner is no accident. Bong is a product of an industry that benefits from a strong studio system and venture capital funds; a generation of savvy producers that understand both arthouse and mainstream filmmaking, and decades of state support. The Korean Film Council (KOFIC) and other institutions fund every step of the filmmaking process, as well as help Korean directors and producers attend festivals and markets, so they can speak with their international peers and see a wide range of films. While Bong hasn’t needed handouts for many years, he has a powerful studio behind him in CJ Entertainment, which fully financed Parasite’s budget of around $11m, a figure way above the average of most Asian films.
Then there’s the fact that Korean cinema employs a filmmaking language and storytelling techniques that are distinctly Korean but can be understood by audiences all over the world. Among all the talented filmmakers working in that system, Bong more than anyone understands how to combine genre filmmaking with arthouse sensibilities and strong storytelling. Parasite has a message, as do many foreign-language films, but it’s also gripping cinema that keeps you on the edge of your seat.
Most other Asian film industries don’t have it so lucky. Some are limited by draconian censorship, or more subtle forms of censorship, that end up killing creativity anyway. Some don’t have access to robust private funding or any consistent form of government support. They may have investors and lots of money, as in China and to a certain extent India, but investment only follows a rigid combination of directors, subject matter and stars. Some have governments that regard cinema as a threat, and seek ways to attack it or co-opt it for their own messaging, rather than provide funding or opportunities for their filmmakers to engage with the rest of the world. There’s also the fact that Asian indie producers struggle under the same limitations as their counterparts in Europe. In most cases, they just don’t make enough money to survive.
In Asia, only Singapore and Taiwan have come anywhere close to giving their filmmakers the same level of support as South Korea. Taiwan has produced a Cannes best director winner in Hou Hsiao Hsien, but suffers from a complicated relationship with China and funding that can be spotty at times. Singapore has produced Cannes and Locarno award-winning filmmakers such as Anthony Chen and Yeo Siew Hua. But neither country has cracked the creation of globally palatable cinema that straddles both arthouse and mainstream.
So yes, it is great that the US, a nation that at present still has the world’s biggest film market, is starting to open up to non-English language content. But if I had to put money on where the next foreign-language best picture Oscar winner comes from, I would place a bet on Europe – home to many industries with a Western sensibility and strong state support (the Korean funding model took many lessons from France) – or Latin America, which has filmmakers who can work comfortably between Hollywood and their home countries, and hopefully may now be inspired to make more Spanish-language films. As much as I love Asian cinema in all of its creativity and diversity, unless there are some huge structural changes in Asian film industries, I wouldn’t bet on the next foreign-language Oscar winner coming from this continent (unless Korea pulls it off again).
I sincerely hope somebody proves me wrong…