REFLECTIONS ON PARASITE’S HISTORIC OSCAR WIN FROM AN ASIAN AMERICAN CHRISTIAN

This was first published in Sola.


 

As an Asian American (and more specifically, as a Korean American Christian), it was quite special to watch Parasite win the Oscar for Best Picture, along with Best Director, Best Original Screen Play, and Best International Feature Film. #BongHive.

Side note: I’m glad they changed the Best Foreign Language Film category to the Best International Feature Film category.  I was born in the United States and learned Korean in conjunction with English as a co-first language. There has never been anything foreign about the Korean language to me, an American.

Here are a few reflections inspired by this historic event.

 


 

First, it felt like the United States finally caught up to the rest of the world in its acknowledgment of the brilliance in Korean media and the arts (Korean shows, music, and movies). As I have traveled throughout the world, I have seen the impact of the K-Wave – the spread of Korean culture – firsthand. Traveling from Central and South America to Europe to Southeast Asia, I’ve seen people glued to their screens watching K-Dramas and bobbing their heads as they listened to K-Pop. There is a reason BTS hit number one in 73 countries in 2019 and was the first band since the Beatles to have three Billboard number one albums in a year.

Second, it shows that activism is fixing some of the gross disparities we see. The awareness given to addressing sexism (along with sexual harassment and assault) in the #metoo and #timesup movements to the racism addressed in #oscarssowhite (we all know Denzel should have won more Oscars) has led to change. Public accountability is making a difference.

It reminded me that within the church, we have had people like Rachael Denhollander, Lisa Sharon Harper, and Beth Moore shed light on the darkness of the sin of sexual abuse and harassment within Christian spheres. I hope that the activism of these women and Asian American women like Kathy Khang, Helen Lee, Irene Cho, Michelle Reyes, and Angie Hong are also elevated to be heard on these issues.

Third, I felt like Koreans were seen on terms that were not dictated by someone else. Critics and audiences raved about the movie, and it deserved its win. In a society where Asians are relegated to either assimilate into the dominant majority or fall in line with stereotypes that keep us in an opaque #bamboocage (instead of merely under a #bambooceiling), through a Korean movie winning best picture, I felt like Koreans were seen for their own merit and valid experiences.

Fourth, it was amazing to hear them speak in Korean from the stage. Growing up, my parents and the parents of my Asian American friends would tell us to be mindful about who we spoke Korean in front of as it could lead to alienation and bullying (as they experienced discrimination themselves).

Unfortunately, their advice was clearly prudent as we saw negative responses like the ones below.

I am not sure how you go from criticizing the fact that people gave an acceptance speech in Korean to saying that the “these people” he spoke about weren’t the Koreans, but “those in Hollywood awarding a foreign film that stokes flames of class warfare.” But in any case, this is proof that people of color (Asian Americans included) can advance racist perspectives and views. Although Koreans may have been applauded on the stage, there were still those booing them.

But I was also amazed at how mindful Bong and his producers were to speak in a way that the translator could keep up. It is evidence of the collectivist consideration that is deeply embedded in the Korean and other Confucian-influenced cultures, and its beauty was evident for the live and televised audience to see.

Fifth, the class by which Bong Joon Ho received the awards (especially Best Director) was first rate. He spent his entire speech after winning Best Director celebrating and honoring the others who were nominated. How he honored others while he was being honored was classic Korean – a beautiful part of the Korean culture.

Sixth, it was incredible to see the Oscar’s stage full of Koreans. This is especially wonderful because the history of Asians on the silver screen has largely been one where Asians weren’t allowed to play themselves (but played by white actors – e.g. Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Katherine Hepburn in Dragon Seed, and Mary Pickford in Madame Butterfly), how they were relegated to sidekick roles and martial arts roles (Bruce Lee had something to day about this), how they were never the romantic interest (this is why so many people were shocked with Steven Yeun in The Walking Dead), and even now, where Asian roles continue to be played by white actors (e.g. Scarlett Johannson in Ghost in the Shell, Emma Stone in Aloha, and Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange). This is why movies like The Joy Luck Club, Crazy Rich Asians, and The Farewell created such buzz as they took up space that we were long restricted. Parasite also fills that void and did it in a powerful way.

Seventh, though it does not mean that prejudice, discrimination, and racism in media is gone (even though Hollywood is further along than many other industries), it does feel like there is much to celebrate in this. This was a moment in which Asians were seen and honored. What Parasite’s triumph revealed is that when Asians are seen, we see how they shine, and when we see how they shine, they can steal the show.

On a more sober note, moments like these, as brief and shallow as they are, make me wish that the Western church was more mindfully engaged in the pursuit of racial justice, reconciliation, and unity without compromise. I wish we could pave the way for the seeing of others. Perhaps the Western Church (which includes Asian American churches) can reflect on the ways we advance discrimination, prejudice, and stereotypes by our indifference and neutrality and begin to teach the whole counsel of God as we declare and infuse the full gospel of Jesus that removes the stain of racism by shedding the light of Christ into the darkness of sin.

Though it was but a moment, Parasite’s win was one for the books, not only because of its historic nature, but also because a “local” awards show (as Bong Joon Ho called it) saw Koreans just like me. It reminded me of all the ways that God sees us for more than just a moment and how we can see (and continue to see) each other as a result of that.

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