On Sunday night, I could have (gasp!) gone to bed early. Instead, I spent thirty minutes frantically plastering social media with the fact that Parasite, the Korean satire/dark comedy/thriller film, had just won Best Picture at the Oscars. And Best Director. And Best Original Screenplay. And Best International Film. It didn’t win the other two awards it was nominated for, Best Film Editing and Best Production Design, but that didn’t seem to matter in the glittering light of “Hollywood’s Biggest Night” and its most important award.
It’s been a painful slog away from the shameless yellowface of old cinema (see: Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s) to the 1993 barrier-breaking Joy Luck Club and the recent boom of Asian-forward films in the past 10 years or so. Despite 2016’s “Lion”, 2019’s “The Farewell” and “Always Be My Maybe”, and the box-office shattering “Crazy Rich Asians” in 2018, though, genuine portrayals of Asian people in mainstream media are still rare at best, and stereotypical at worst (see again: 2017’s Ghost in the Shell, Scarlett Johannson as historically Japanese character Major Motoko Kusanagi, whitewashed into Major Mira Killian).
This isn’t to say that Asian people outside of America haven’t been making their own movies: Bong Joon Ho, director of Parasite, noted in his now-famous Golden Globes acceptance speech for Best International Film that “once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” Bollywood and other Asian media production industries have been creating incredible films and content beloved by audiences internationally—just so much less so in the United States.
It matters that the Best International Film category, which Parasite won, was titled Best Foreign Language Film until this year. This title only contributed to the alienation of international films and the reductive perception of non-English speaking films. In 2019 when Alfonso Cuaron won then-Best Foreign Language Film, he pointed this out in his acceptance speech. Cuaron noted how he “grew up watching foreign-language movies and learning so much from them and being inspired, [films] like Citizen Kane, Jaws,” as a nod to how, in most other places, English movies are so-called foreign language films.
That’s why seeing Parasite win was so refreshing: it directed the narrative of Asians in film away from what it’s been for so long: Kung fu, doctors, or some Fu-Manchu type nonsense. Unfortunately, this includes Mulan and Kung Fu Panda, even though those are great movies that only happen to be voiced by majority white people. Parasite allowed Asian people to just be Asian. The beauty of K-Dramas and other international media is that, at least right now, they’re the only places where Asian people are allowed to live out narratives separate from their Asian identities. Don’t get me wrong—Asian identity is fascinating and there are so many cultural nuances that would make great movies, but that’s just the problem. You don’t just make “Asian movies.” Asia is so big. Even though films like “Crazy Rich Asians” and even “The Farewell” are wonderful representations of certain Asian narratives, centering on the ‘Asian experience’ as a whole can be very monolithic and reductive—Parasite, on the other hand, was just about some really weird families that happened to be Korean.
When the cast of Parasite went up to accept the award, I audibly gasped at what I was seeing– so, so many Korean people. Surely more than had ever been on that stage before, and definitely the first time accepting several major awards. And I wasn’t imagining it: Asian Americans, despite making up 6 percent of the U.S. population, composed only 1 percent of lead roles in studio films in 2014. Parasite winning Best Picture is the crucial recognition of how Asians (in this case, East Asians) have slowly started to represent themselves in Western media. Hearing Bong speak in Korean and make silly jokes about how much Koreans love karaoke means so much more to me than I can express. My older brother, who is a film and media studies major (and who is also Korean) was the only person on Sunday more excited than me. He screamed when Parasite won.