On Monday morning, a flurry of Hollywood trade-paper headlines greeted the news that Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite had, in its fifth weekend of release, crossed the $10m threshold: at this time of writing, its American gross stands at $11.3m, steadily rising as its screen count expands across the country. Ordinarily, that is hardly a figure that would have champagne corks popping in Tinseltown, but the current market is a tough one for subtitled cinema: Parasite’s current haul is the year’s highest for any non-English-language film in the US. (For the sake of comparison, last year’s critically beloved, Cannes-approved Korean thriller, Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, made a paltry $719,000 stateside; even Park Chan-wook’s more broadly accessible The Handmaiden barely scraped $2m in 2016.)
That may not make it anything close to a threat for the all-time record – held by Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon with $128m, distantly trailed by Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful, with $57m – but in tandem with its worldwide gross of $115m, the milestone is enough to seal the Palme d’Or winner’s status as an international arthouse phenomenon. (The UK, where Bong’s film is only set to open in February 2020, will be somewhat late to the party.) Its US distributor Neon, meanwhile, will certainly feel emboldened by the record as Parasite heads into awards season – where it will be tough to beat for the newly named best international film Oscar, but where, like Lee’s and Benigni’s film before it, it’s also aiming at the bigger prizes.
Last year, Alfonso Cuarón’s Netflix-backed Mexican memory piece Roma came close to doing what no non-English-language film has done before, in 91 long years of the Oscars: winning best picture. Entering the ceremony as the odds-on favourite, it made history by taking best director – another first for this eternally anglocentric institution – before being tripped up at the final hurdle by the safe, retrograde and emphatically all-American comforts of Green Book. In the largely disgruntled industry post-mortem that followed, pundits traded various theories about why Cuarón’s more acclaimed film had lost. Was Hollywood loath to hand its top prize to Netflix? Was the film itself too languid and meditative? Or was a body of predominantly English-speaking voters still ineluctably biased toward its own tongue?
As pundits start talking up the Oscar possibilities of Parasite, then, it’s hard not to feel a little jaded by past disappointments. If Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (with its mighty box office, lavish historical spectacle and Ang Lee’s crossover imprimatur) or Roma (a heart-stirring personal project from a director whose previous film, Gravity, was a global smash that won seven Oscars) couldn’t beat Gladiator and Green Book, respectively, what hope is there for a comparatively modestly scaled Korean genre ride with lashings of chilly, grisly violence, seething sociopolitical subtext and a pointed but muted emotional payoff, from a director whose two previous English-language outings never quite captured Hollywood imaginations? It seems a lot to ask of the Green Book contingent, put it that way.
Yet Parasite is incrementally acquiring something that Roma, for all its doting reviews, never quite managed: genuine popular cachet, of the kind that can’t be bought or fabricated, but can make a film’s cultural footprint seem bigger than its box office. It began as early as Cannes, where hype for the film wasn’t just generated by fawning reviews from the critical establishment, but a younger, very online and very vocal group of Generation Z cinephiles, who swiftly branded themselves the #BongHive and granted the film an immediate social-media presence even before it won the Palme, or began rolling out internationally.
Since then, Parasite has become a positive meme machine: if you haven’t seen the film yet but are a regular on Twitter, you may have regularly encountered images and gifs from the film without even realising it. The “Jessica Jingle” – a brief chant delivered by one of the film’s young characters to help remember her false identity, itself based on a standard memory aid for Korean schoolchildren – has been so widely appropriated by fans that it’s now available as a mobile ringtone, the kind of inexplicable-out-of-context in-joke that signals a film’s ascent to a phenomenon status worth far more than $10m.
It’s rare for any non-American film to attain this kind of universal currency in the borderless online realm, though cinema has been lagging behind when it comes to such cultural globalisation. After all, it was the internet, not national broadcasters, that made K-pop an international obsession. Parasite may hardly be the cinematic equivalent of BTS, but there are parallels in the ways they’ve cultivated their fanbases: they speak the same language in more ways than one. That Bong’s film also neatly taps into a global well of class outrage, moreover, has given it universal resonance for socially conscious young audiences, hungry for texts to feed their haves-versus-have-nots discourse amid global political disarray: Parasite’s class-based sympathies might be multi-generational, but it still cuts close to the bone for the “OK boomer” crowd.
Whether the Academy – still not the youngest or hippest group on the block, for all recent attempts to diversify its membership – tunes into that frequency and recognises Parasite as perhaps the most, well, 2019 film of 2019 remains to be seen. Either way, the international #BongHive will keep buzzing, while Bong himself could hardly seem less bothered about his film’s US awards prospects. “The Oscars are not an international film festival,” he said airily when quizzed on the subject. “They’re very local.”