Has Parasite cracked the U.S. film industry’s glass ceiling?

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The Parasite cast at the 2019 Academy Awards. (Photo: Getty Images)

By Noah Portner

Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite is the first non-English-language film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, an award often regarded as the most prestigious prize of the Oscars. Does this success signal much-needed progress in the U.S. film industry?

The critically acclaimed dark comedy thriller from South Korea, with Asian actors in the leading roles, broke several box office records both within and outside of the U.S., and has recently been added to the streaming service Hulu. There is universal critical acclaim for the film and it is regarded as one of the best films of the decade. In addition to winning several important awards, the film was recently added to the Criterion Collection. Parasite featured an ensemble of clever characters while grappling with social inequality in a unique way and transforming the film from a comedic satire to a darker thriller. Using two families — one rich, one poor– to tell his tale, Bong Joon-Ho manages to surprise everyone who watches and keeps you on the edge of your seat.

Success of this non-English film in the United States reflects groundbreaking changes both in U.S. film circles and among the public. In fact, the organization that hosts the Oscars, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, has long been criticized for its lack of diversity, equity and inclusion as its membership had been composed of almost entirely white men. The 2015 hashtag #OscarsSoWhite aimed to make the Academy accept more communities of color and women. In response, the Academy set a goal of having 25% of the Academy be women and 10% come from underrepresented groups by 2020. By the end of June, the Academy surpassed this goal by adding a large number of women and members of underrepresented groups, including members of the cast and crew of Parasite. Notably, most of the cast and crew of Parasite are not proficient in English, so the move to include non-English speakers in a white and Western-dominated organization is a huge step forward toward turning the Oscars from a domestic phenomenon to a global one.

LA Times film critic Justin Chang wrote, “Parasite has dealt a much-needed slap to the American film industry’s narcissism, its long-standing love affair with itself, its own product and its own image.” Chang added that the “Academy’s efforts to diversify its ranks and become a truly global institution are having an imperfect but measurable effect.” Chang’s sentiments were echoed by a stupendous number of critics, celebrities, and directors. Not only was there a consensus that Parasite changed the nature of storytelling on its way to being recognized as the best film of 2020, but perhaps more importantly, there was a consensus that the victory of Parasite shows changing trends in Hollywood toward a more global, diverse perspective.

Hannah Giorgis wrote in The Atlantic that “Bong’s movie made the Oscars slightly less local.” Giorgis reminisced on the 2018 movie Roma, a film from Mexico, which garnered several awards at the 2020 Oscars but failed to take Best Picture. The press talked extensively about Parasite after its debut and win, and while Americans were slow to talk about the film on social media, the front-page articles about Parasite’s stellar win show that US film culture is prone to change. The slow shift of the Oscars reminds us that the change-resistant Academy is slowly becoming receptive to international films, and if the Academy is representative of the U.S. film industry, perhaps the perceptions and attitudes of the American public will change as well.

It is important to add that despite its accolades, the Academy shut out Parasite’s actors as they were not nominated for any acting awards. Few actors of Asian descent have ever been nominated in the acting categories, showing the strong need for increased visibility and representation among Academy members to ensure this oversight does not continue.

Unfortunately, there has also been a nationalistic push-back to Parasite’s success. President Trump attacked the critically-acclaimed film, saying “By the way, how bad were the Academy Awards this year, do you see? And the winner is, a movie from South Korea. What the hell was all that about? We got enough problems with South Korea, on trade, and on top of it they give it the best movie of the year. Was it good?” Trump went on to request “Can we get Gone With the Wind?”– the Oscar winner 80 years ago and a film with a racist subtext. Trump’s attack of such a widely acclaimed film has been branded as a nationalistic attack by many, including Parasite’s film distributor Neon, which said “Understandable, he can’t read [subtitles].”

Parasite’s wit, pacing, acting, and storytelling have garnered a huge amount of praise and put further cracks in the glass ceiling of the U.S. film industry. It may ultimately help make the American film audience more globally minded and appreciative of other cultures. As Parasite’s director remarked: “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”

Noah Portner is a summer intern with Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC.

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This blog is part of our “Milestones and Missed Cues” blog series.

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To combat misperceptions about our incredibly multifaceted community, Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC advocates for fair and equal representation of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) behind and in front of the camera. Historically, AAPIs have been depicted in one-dimensional and often dehumanizing ways, but we have seen significant strides in recent years. We are delighted to introduce our blog series entitled, “Milestones and Missed Cues,” which examines movies and television shows featuring AAPI characters by asking a few important questions: Does the movie or show move the perception of AAPIs in a positive direction? Does the movie or show challenge the notion of what it means to be a “mainstream” movie instead of an “ethnic” movie? How do media platforms and outlets discuss the movie or show? How do social media users talk about the movie or show?

Advancing Justice | AAJC

Working to empower Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to…

Advancing Justice | AAJC

Written by

Fighting for civil rights for all and working to empower #AAPIs to participate in our democracy. Follow: @johncyangdc @tao_minnis @meganessaheb

Advancing Justice | AAJC

Working to empower Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to participate in our democracy and fighting for civil and human rights for all.

Advancing Justice | AAJC

Written by

Fighting for civil rights for all and working to empower #AAPIs to participate in our democracy. Follow: @johncyangdc @tao_minnis @meganessaheb

Advancing Justice | AAJC

Working to empower Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to participate in our democracy and fighting for civil and human rights for all.

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