Not since “Moonlight’s” win in 2017 have I been more delighted or shocked by a Best Picture Oscar than when “Parasite” won last week. When the film’s name was called, my social media lit up with excitement, joy and pride.
With only one person of color nominated in an acting category and no women nominated for best director, 2020 promised to be a repeat of the many #OscarsSoWhite awards seasons where stories centering on white people directed by white men were going to once again rule the day. (See “Green Book,” 2019.)
Yet after 92 years, “Parasite” became the first foreign-language film to break the language barrier and win the motion picture academy’s highest honor.
I wrote in 2018 that while the success of the “Crazy Rich Asians” film was groundbreaking and notable, the glossy world of the uber rich was not something I related to. Still, I hoped it would open the door to other films featuring Asian casts.
It appears it has. Since “Crazy Rich Asians,” we have seen another hit Asian-American rom-com in “Always Be My Maybe”; an intimate Chinese-American drama in the beautiful and Academy-snubbed “The Farewell”; and now “Parasite.”
“Parasite” was exactly the kind of antidote to the fantasy of “Crazy Rich Asians” I was hoping for. A black comedy thriller about two very different families in an interdependent relationship, I immediately related to the Kim family’s grit and hustle, ingenuity and their decided lack of Hollywood polish. They resembled nothing of the Asian American “model minority” stereotype we have seen so much in the U.S. media. The film’s deeper themes of class inequality and the ruthlessness of modern capitalism resonated as well, something we rarely see in U.S. films.
The excitement Asians, Asian Americans and other people of color feel over the recognition of “Parasite” is due in large part to what writer Viet Thanh Nguyen (“The Sympathizer”) calls “narrative scarcity.” We see few media portrayals of ourselves and when we do, they are usually through someone else’s lens. This creates an unfulfilled hunger for media that reflects our experiences.
Hollywood has gotten moderately better at telling stories of underrepresented communities, but has a long way to go to get to narrative plenitude. A big reason why is that studio executives who decide what is worthy to be shown on screens are still overwhelmingly homogeneous. The 2020 Hollywood Diversity Report found that 93% of senior studio executives were white and 80% were men, despite the fact that people of color are overrepresented as film audiences and that films with higher numbers of actors of color do better at the box office.
While filmmakers, writers and actors rightly push for more access to the studio system, others like Ava DuVernay’s Array production and distribution organization are releasing their own films by and about people of color and women. They are also partnering with streaming services like Netflix that allow more creative control (and in the case of Bong, complete creative control).
Fortunately the Seattle area is at the center of a diverse and thriving film-watching and film-creating community. In addition to the SIFF behemoth, there are a number of ethnic film festivals, queer and transgender film festivals and festivals about people with disabilities. We have access to films from around the world as well as from our own backyard. There are shorts fests and fly filmmaking fests and organizations like Northwest Film Forum to learn how to make your own work.
SuYoung Yun, a Seattle-based juror for the Seattle Asian American Film Festival (SAAFF), which starts on Thursday, said the win for “Parasite” was huge for Yun and others in the Korean American and Asian American community. “That was like a watershed, groundbreaking moment,” Yun said. “I feel like in terms of representation, to have the first non-English film win best picture I just felt was going to be big for future filmmakers and performers, artists.”
Yun said the excitement around “Parasite” is an invitation to support filmmakers in our own communities. “It is encouraging to see [Asian Pacific Islander] folks making movies, telling their stories and doing it in such a skillful and artful and beautiful way.”
Films help make the world smaller and increase our understanding of people whose lives are different from our own. But we rarely see mainstream films telling the stories of the diversity of people and experiences in Africa, Latin America or about contemporary Native American communities. There are numerous movies about war, but there are very few about conflicts from the perspective of those whose lands were colonized. There are so many lives and stories that go untold and unseen.
This history-making moment for “Parasite” will hopefully reassure those who greenlight films that narrative diversity and plenitude is not only good for representation, but good for the future of filmmaking as well.