I decided to boycott the Oscars this year. As a proud Korean American, I couldn’t bear to see Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite left on the sidelines. So when I saw the news that the 2019 film about a South Korean class struggle had won four Oscars, including Best Picture, I was floored. I spent hours watching all of the acceptance speeches and highlights, including slow motion clips of the cast and photos of Bong making his Oscar statues kiss.
Parasite fans — more broadly known as the #BongHive — were bursting with Korean (and Asian) pride on social media. Sandra Oh shared her adulation: “So so proud to be Korean.” Phil Yu of Angry Asian Man tweeted, “I am Korean. I am crying.” Sociologist and cultural critic Nancy Wang Yuen declared her “renewed hope that Hollywood can look beyond race, borders and languages to recognize art.”
Meanwhile, my own family members ecstatically texted each other Korean flag and peach emojis. I even posted an Instagram story of Kang Ho-song, the actor who plays Mr. Kim — and one of Bong Joon-ho’s longtime collaborators.
All week, I’ve been thinking about what it means for the film to have been honored in this way. It’s more than just Korean pride.
Like many of Bong’s movies, Parasite examines how the forces of capitalism shape our work, families and livelihoods. It’s not a feel-good story. But it’s one that everyone can relate to, whether we identify more with the working-class Kim family or the wealthy Park family.
It’s significant — as author Viet Thanh Nguyen pointed out — that “we do not have enough movies about poor Asians…who want to overthrow a system of global capitalism that enables the lifestyle of wealthy…Asians who would be just as problematic if they were white.”
The class struggle in Parasite is a global story. But as Inkoo Kang notes, “there’s also something distinctly Korean to me about [Bong’s] ability to weld extreme pain to earthy comedy, along with a profound distrust in government institutions and an eclectic mix of international influences.” To me, Bong’s “signature tonal hairpins” — as Kang calls them — are what create rich and unforgettable characters and stories that linger with us for a long time.
For decades, Asian American characters in Hollywood movies consisted of racist stereotypes or two-dimensional backdrops to the more complex inner realities of white characters. With its complex characters and made-in-Korea (not Hollywood) pedigree, Parasite avoids these old tropes.
For Asian American audiences, whose on-screen experiences are often depicted in relation to immigration and belonging, it’s especially refreshing to see a story like Parasite, which takes place entirely in the absence of whiteness but still makes a nuanced argument for why and how power functions and corrupts in a capitalist society.
At the same time, Bong’s success highlights the Academy’s problematic relationship with filmmakers from diverse backgrounds. For example, Mexican directors, not Mexican-American directors, have dominated the awards in recent years. “It’s worth thinking about what artistic freedom a Korean filmmaker like Bong is allowed, versus Korean-American or Asian-American filmmakers, who must conform to an assimilationist, model minority narrative of acceptance into American (white) culture,” said Peter Kim, who teaches Korean cinema at The New School in New York City.
The Parasite buzz also elicited skepticism from some Korean Americans, including one of my friends from college, who wrote on Facebook, “Parasite was the best film of the year before the Academy said anything…criticizing the establishment until it accepts you is classic Asian American shit. (Not that Parasite is Asian American).”
Sure, I turned down invitations to two Oscars parties. But the Parasite win still feels good to me.
It’s because we live in a world where Asian and Asian American movies as different as 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians (the top-grossing romantic comedy in a decade) and Parasite are being watched by millions of people around the world. As Viet Thanh Nguyen observed about Crazy Rich Asians, “If and when we achieve an economy of narrative plenitude, a bad movie about Asian-Americans will just be a bad movie.”
It seems like we’re heading the way of narrative plenitude. In the past few years, I’ve eagerly watched a number of Asian and Asian American movies (Spa Night, Searching, Shirkers, Burning, The Farewell) that have told a variety of stories — from a young man’s coming out in a Korean spa to a Chinese American family’s efforts to protect their grandmother from bad news.
The diversity of narratives that audiences can see feels special. The Parasite win highlights a rare moment in which both Koreans and Korean Americans are taking pride. As I head into the new decade, I’m going to hang on to this feeling.
Fi2W is supported by The Ford Foundation, the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation, the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The J.M. Kaplan Fund, an anonymous donor and readers like you.