Critic's Notebook: The Liberating Power of the 'Parasite' Oscar Win

Bong Joon-ho Oscars 3 - Getty - H 2020
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The awards season success of the film was not only a triumph for South Korea and foreign cinema at large — it was also a kind of unburdening for Asian Americans.

Parasite's sweep of the Oscars on Sunday night for best original screenplay, international feature film, director and — finally, and most improbably — picture offered up a smorgasbord of joys. As a longtime Bong Joon Ho champion, I was thrilled to see one of cinema's finest and most unpredictable filmmakers recognized at the peak of his career, and on such a global stage. As an advocate for greater diversity within the entertainment industry, I was excited that the Academy honored a non-English-language film that happened to be, in my opinion, one of the two most deserving contenders in the best picture category (the other being Little Women), especially after last year's regressive pick, Green Book. And as a disappointed viewer let down by the ceremony's many elbowing allusions to the overwhelming whiteness of the nominees, I found Parasite's organic triumphs to be a welcome antidote to the Academy's performative white guilt.

But I felt most keenly my delight as a Korean American and an Asian American. Parasite was a lot of firsts for Korean film as far as Western accolades go: the first winner of the Palme d'Or, the first winner of a Golden Globe, the first feature to compete for an Oscar in any category, the first to win every one of those aforementioned Oscar categories, of course, and the first non-English best picture Oscar winner. Bong will return home to South Korea a celebrity and a luminary. Korea is a tiny country — one the majority of Americans probably couldn't find on a map — and the outsized influence of its cultural contributions (which include K-pop, K-dramas, Korean cuisine, tae kwon do and its beauty industry) is an immense source of national pride. Growing up in Los Angeles' Koreatown, where Korean was and is spoken on every street, I never could have imagined my mother tongue spoken onstage — repeatedly! — just a few miles away at the Dolby Theatre.

It can be tricky, if not impossible, for many Asian Americans to fully identify with the country or countries of their ethnic origin. (For a deeply affecting illustration, look no further than Lulu Wang's The Farewell, which won best feature honors at the Spirit Awards on Saturday, making it a grand weekend for filmmakers of Asian descent.) The peculiarities of Asian America mean constantly proving our Americanness, our non-foreignness, our belonging. "Where are you really from?" is a question that haunts Asian Americans, which is why second- and third-generation immigrants may feel the need to play up our rights to this country.

That can mean playing down other parts of ourselves, whether by choice or by acculturation. I don't speak Korean most of the time, because most of the people I spend my time with don't know the language. I never proposed going out to eat Korean food with my non-Korean friends until my mid-20s, when I discovered that KBBQ was the thing to do in L.A. (The cuisine du jour is probably something else now.) Watching Parasite be embraced by so many people has been an unburdening, a de-otherization I didn't know I needed. The parts of myself I didn't think would be understood by non-Koreans maybe weren't so illegible, so unknowable, after all — partly because of the way Korean culture has spread internationally, partly because I had preemptively decided others might find those aspects of me too esoteric or difficult to comprehend (and, to be perfectly honest, partly because I do not feel like ever explaining again why the question "Are you from South Korea or North Korea?" is profoundly stupid). And at a time when the White House is codifying xenophobia into policy and the 24-hour news cycle is fomenting anti-Asian paranoia stateside (through that hoariest of yellow-peril tropes, the filthy foreigner), I'll take Parasite's win as a small one for me, too.

Much of the comfort I've found in Parasite's triumphs has to do with how deeply and specifically Korean I found the film to be. Since its October release, I've discussed nonstop — in articles, podcasts and TV appearances — how technically brilliant Bong's signature tonal hairpins are, where scenes suddenly whiplash from, say, slapstick comedy to Greek tragedy to ironic satire. (My favorite example is a scene in The Host, where Bong practically dares you to laugh at a mourning family for the histrionic display of their grief.) Those hairpins are a writerly and directorial achievement that has garnered Bong recognition in Korea, too, but there's also something distinctly Korean to me about his ability to weld extreme pain to earthy comedy, along with a profound distrust in government institutions and an eclectic mix of international influences. 

Bong's filmography, which encompasses both urban Seoul and the more suburban and agricultural provinces, also feels more like the ordinary Korea I know, even with the sci-fi monsters and grisly murders, than the glossy futurism projected by K-pop. And because achievement and prestige among Asian Americans remain divisive issues — conjuring accusations of abusive parenting and hollow ambition in some circles, and misplaced priorities and the erasure of the economic diversity within Asian America in others — Parasite's grappling with such striving and its costs without the cacophonous noise of the American culture wars in the background was bracing.

But the sight that made me arguably happiest during Parasite's reign during awards season might be Bong's seeming lack of self-consciousness, his enjoyment of the privileges of the international auteur. For the most part and until extremely recently, Hollywood has preferred Mexican directors to Mexican American ones, Asian actors to Asian Americans ones. A standard interview question to American actors of color has become "What was your worst audition?" — rare is the answer that doesn't involve race. Maybe because he had little to prove, at least race-wise, Bong acted his refreshingly carefree self, from the film's initial rollout through his awards campaign and Oscar night. Even before Parasite's release, he insulted the Academy by calling the Oscars a "local" prize. When Parasite took the Golden Globe for best foreign language film, he chided Americans for being so incurious about all the movies on the other side of "the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles."

I laughed, and winced, at those comments. They're totally on-point, and they remind me of nearly every one of my middle-aged relatives in Korea, to whom bluntness is a given, not an option. They also made me wonder if the notoriously thin-skinned Hollywood elite — and Americans as a whole — would backlash, and whether that meant Bong had hobbled his own chances with his plain-spoken wit. Then there he was again, onstage Oscar night, flouting traditional awards etiquette by openly admiring his trophy while his co-writer Han Jin-won gave a heartfelt speech, and, later, making his Oscars kiss each other for the camera. Backstage, he said he came up with the idea for Parasite "because I'm a fucking weirdo." The remark flung a hundred and one stereotypes about meek, dutiful, robotic Asian men out the window.

So what's next? Hollywood and the Oscars are so broken in so many ways that, if there were to be a Parasite effect, it could be so many things: a more globally attuned Academy, a heartier embrace of movies by and about people of color, an even greater consideration of smaller films, many more firsts. Or we could start smaller: with more leaps over that one-inch-tall barrier. It's easy if you try.