Bong Joon Ho at the Oscars: Gratitude and Common Humanity

Bong Joon Ho's magnanimous presence was a highlight of the 2020 Oscar's

Posted Feb 10, 2020

from Wikimedia
Source: from Wikimedia

I’ve seen Parasite twice already, and plan to see it at least one more time this week. It had been the most powerful film experience of the year for me (along with Lulu Wang’s The Farewell). I found the film incredibly acted by an outstanding ensemble cast, with a storyline that drew me deeply into a polarized world of class inequity and struggle for survival, yet creating the conditions for empathy for all slices of the human pie expertly baked by director Bong Joon Ho. The pie was also deliciously humorous and entertaining.

I was rooting for an improbable win at the Oscars on Sunday night, both for the filmmaking and also for the off-the-beaten path themes which turned a lens on inequity not just in Korea, but by extension, worldwide. This story could have been told in any developed country in the world. As you all know, Parasite made history, becoming the first international feature to win Best Picture. (Parasite also won Best Original Screenplay and Best International Feature, and Bong Joon Ho won Best Director.) For Asian Americans in particular, and not only Koreans and Korean Americans, this win was earth-shattering. We could exult in a win by someone “close” to us and close to our hearts. An Asian media win is a win for Asian Americans too.

There was similar pride in The Farewell’s win at the Independent Spirit Award’s the night before. So much Asian American suffering and dissatisfaction comes out of various forms of “not belonging”: invisibility, being shunned and ignored, being falsely idealized as a “model minority,” being targeted by racism and xenophobia, bullied, scapegoated and blamed, not being accepted and appreciated as individuals and as a community, and not having our particular sufferings seen as important in the broader culture. This has been blatant in the current coronavirus crisis (See here and here.)

But Bong Joon Ho’s magnanimous words and presence after his wins really made the night extraordinary. Oscar acceptance speeches are always filled with gratitude, but Bong’s particular appreciation for Martin Scorsese really got me. He revealed words that he’d etched in his mind early in his career (“The most personal is the most creative”) and then revealed that those words came from Scorsese himself. I’ll admit I choked up a bit, as I witnessed this torch being passed from master to student, and then seeing the student become a master himself.

Bong also gave his appreciation for the support of fellow nominee Quentin Tarantino, and jokingly pledged he would happily take a “Texas chainsaw” to his trophy to split it five ways with Scorsese, Tarantino, Todd Phillips and Sam Mendes. I was moved by the warmth and connection in his words. Here was a winner who brought us all along. It was as if he sensed the possible disappointment of his fellow nominees, and reminded them and us of the more important relationship that they – and by extension, we – all shared. That Oscar was not to be divided amongst the nominees – rather, we were all connected to that trophy, and to Bong, and to each other. It was interdependence (or what Koreans call jung) exemplified. Just as the body and mind are connected, so is the self connected to other selves.

Bong continued to be a walking example of gratitude, common humanity, and appreciation for others after the Oscars as well. Was there ever a moment he dreamed of winning an Oscar as a child? Bong replied that he’d felt disappointed when Scorsese lost in the past, and so happy when he won, demonstrating the deep sense of identification we develop with our heroes and their work. This is part of the important work that artists and other cultural leaders can perform in the world – promoting ideals and visions that others identify with and become part of our common humanity.

He was then asked ‘What does this win mean for Asian Americans?’ Bong pointed out that another film he loved, The Farewell, won Best Picture at the Independent Spirits. 

“I don’t think it’s necessary to separate all the borders and divisions, whether it’s Asia, Europe, or the U.S. If we pursue the beauty of cinema, and focus on the individual charms that each piece has, I think then we will naturally overcome all these barriers. Me and Lulu Wang, we all just make movies. It’s all same.”

I immediately felt a deeper meaning, and imagined that Bong might as well have been speaking of common humanity. In my heart, I could hear him saying,

“I don’t think it’s necessary to separate all the borders and divisions, whether it’s Asia, Europe, Africa, Central or South America, or the U.S. If we pursue the beauty of life, and focus on the individual charms that each life has, I think then we will naturally overcome all these barriers. Me and you, we are all just making our lives. It’s all same.”

If only Bong’s magnanimity and vision could be a bellwether for our times. If only all our leaders spoke with such warmth, relatedness, gratitude, and common humanity.

Thank you, Bong Joon Ho. This is the first time in 2020 that I could feel a clear vision at work in the world. You are, indeed, a visionary.

(c) 2020 Ravi Chandra, M.D., D.F.A.P.A.

Please watch:

Bong Joon Ho accepts the 2020 Oscar for Best Director

Bong Joon Ho displays common humanity after the Oscars