Commentary: ‘Parasite’ became an Oscars success story overnight because of years of Asian American support – The San Diego Union-Tribune

Posted: February 15, 2020 at 4:46 am

When the Korean film Parasite won the Oscar for Best Picture on Sunday, Asian Americans and Korean Americans rejoiced with tears, reflection and ceremony. For these film lovers, it was a rare moment of pride, given Hollywoods long-standing aversion to greenlighting films starring Asian faces. Perhaps, in a year when the Academy was criticized for only nominating one non-white actor in any category, its members ultimately got things right?

But the way the equation has been posed by the #OscarsSoWhite campaign that minorities must demand that the Academy let them in still puts the final power in the hands of Hollywood gatekeepers. As Variety put it, On Oscar night, Hollywood sent a message out to the world by crowning a Korean film the years best, as if Parasites induction as the first non-English Best Picture was a victory for the Academy as much as it was for director Bong Joon-ho.

Obviously, it can be a victory for both. But in considering the conditions that enabled a Korean film to succeed on Americas most prominent film stage, credit must go also to the Asian American audiences and institutions that gave Korean cinema viability, profitability and legibility on these shores. When Korean cinema underwent a box office renaissance with the record-breaking Shiri in 1999, it was Korean Americans who started demanding VCDs and VHS imports of it and later films like Joint Security Area and My Sassy Girl. And when the so-called Korean wave that included film, TV dramas and K-pop took Asia by storm in the subsequent years, it was Korean, Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese immigrants seeking cultural proximity who were the most ardent fans in the United States. Korean film and television became mainstays of Chinatowns and Little Saigons.

Since his debut in 2000 with Barking Dogs Never Bite, director Bong Joon-ho ascended the ranks in Asian America cinephilia. His masterpiece Memories of Murder had its U.S. premiere not at Sundance or Telluride but at the San Diego Asian Film Festival (SDAFF), which went on to play nearly all of Bongs films, from his 2009 drama Mother to his rare 2004 short Influenza. Festivals like SDAFF not only serve Asian American audiences, but also function as critical cultural translators for non-Asian audiences an unheralded role long shouldered by Asian Americans throughout U.S. history.

Through the efforts of film festivals, mom-and-pop video stores and internet forums like Soompi, the Korean American community found itself ready to consume films from Korea. At first, this was through grey-market networks or online piracy. But soon, distributors like Tartan, Well Go USA and CJ Entertainment America, knowing they could at least count on the Korean community, took the chance on acquiring U.S. rights and marketing them, often with mostly Korean-language advertising. Meanwhile, the historically Hollywood-centric AMC Theatres started to play first-run Korean films in auditoriums next to Disney or Marvel movies. The release of titles like The Age of Shadows and A Taxi Driver (both starring Song Kang-ho, who plays the Kim family father in Parasite) led to reviews in mainstream publications like the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times. Asian Americans who built and sustained the audience for two decades paved the way for Neon to distribute Parasite and critics to notice and praise it.

Yet that very community remains in the shadows amidst the Oscar hoopla and Hollywood back-patting. The irony is that ignoring the labor that led to the Academys big moment perfectly parallels what Parasite is all about. In the film, a rich couple is unable or unwilling to see what is really going on with the two underclass families who serve them. What makes the film such an ingenious, unpredictable and rollicking satire is that it focuses on how those families are not mere servants propping up their masters glory, but rather termite-like agents burrowing and eating away at the expensive food and furniture even while cooking and cleaning for them. While they may never admit it, those who live upstairs and those who live downstairs need each other and are tied in their fates.

Seen in this light, Parasites Oscar win is not just the Academy letting Asian filmmakers into their gilded palace. Asian Americans broke in at night, sipped the Hollywood whiskey, tried out its fancy dresses, and left a peach-fuzz trail of intoxicants to convince Academy members that they might want to give Korean cinema a look. If the gates indeed opened, lets not overlook whose work and passions it took to unlock those doors.

Hu is assistant professor of television, film and new media at San Diego State University and artistic director of Pacific Arts Movement, presenters of the San Diego Asian Film Festival.

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Commentary: 'Parasite' became an Oscars success story overnight because of years of Asian American support - The San Diego Union-Tribune

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