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Bong Joon-ho’s Oscars flex was quietly one of the night’s best moments

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There’s power to speaking your own language on Hollywood’s biggest stage

During last year’s Academy Awards, Bong Joon-ho, the Korean director of Parasite, the first non-English language Best Picture winner in Oscar history, had a message for U.S. audiences:

“Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles,” Bong said following his dual win for Best Picture and Best Director, “you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”

This year, he ditched the subtitles entirely.

Presenting the 2021 award for Best Director, Bong, in a segment taped from a theater in Seoul, introduced the nominees in Korean. He spoke at length with no subtitles, alone in the theater for a few moments before his translator Sharon Choi appeared in frame to deliver his statement in English — in which he asked this year’s nominees to define directing in about 20 seconds before announcing the winner of this year’s Best Director trophy, Chloé Zhao.

It was a subversive moment in an experimental ceremony, a relaxed flex from Bong that furthered his quiet fight against Hollywood biases that box out foreign-language cinema as something other.

In a night meant to celebrate movies and how they connect us — especially in a pandemic year — the practice of awards presenters and recipients speaking in whatever language they find comfortable is a simple, moving way to further speak to the empathetic power of cinema.