The Oscars Didn’t Deserve ‘Parasite’

While it was nice that an Asian film won Hollywood's most coveted prize, there are now some traps that Asian Americans must avoid

4 years ago

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Some may dismiss me as a grinch, but I didn’t want Parasite to win Best Picture. It wasn’t because I disliked the movie or thought it overrated. I loved it and watched it twice in theatres, a thing I almost never do. It easily beat out anything Hollywood did in 2019.

But that was exactly why I didn’t want it to win. I didn’t want the Oscars to leech off its achievement, to bind itself to an artistic work that would be legendary with or without the validation of that decaying institution. If anything, Parasite’s reputation would’ve likely been enhanced by a loss as it would become a glorious martyr to Oscar stupidity. And I definitely didn’t want to see Asians weeping with ecstasy that some elitist, mostly white panel let us win some trophy.

I’ve become an anti-Oscars accelerationist: let mediocre or even terrible movies win and watch the Academy’s credibility collapse. The faster we take away the Academy’s power to make kings and queens, the better. Otherwise, all we’re asking for is a more benevolent monarchy. I was rooting for Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, which I hadn’t seen but whose win would’ve once again confirmed Hollywood’s love of self-pleasure. Or how about Joker, another movie I hadn’t seen but whose victory was guaranteed to set off entertaining Twitter wars?

But Parasite did win. And when I heard stories like how Song Kang Ho was crying backstage with tears of joy, I did feel some genuine gladness that it won. I imagined a young Song Kang Ho trying to break into acting in a Korean society that, despite its pride, probably had severe doubts that its cultural output could ever deserve worldwide acclaim, especially from the West. And now, there he and his friends and co-workers were, not merely invited to the Oscars, but as the toast of Hollywood.

I also thought of the Koreans back in Korea (and Asians in Asia, in general) who’ve long overvalued English as a marker of status. How great it must’ve been for them to see the American entertainment elite give a standing ovation to a fully Korean film that only used English to mock its users? For all the adults who had to spend countless hours at hakwons, and the kids currently doing so, I hope this event brings a smile to their faces.

However, some of the Asian American reaction gave me pause. As I predicted and feared, the emotional gushing began immediately. Proclamations of Korean/Asian pride exploded on Twitter. I saw a lot of Hangul. Memories of past glories — like the 2002 World Cup and Kim Yuna’s 2010 gold medal — were recounted. But so were memories of past humiliations. Refusal to learn Asian languages growing up. Hiding our lunches from classmates. Just a general desire to disassociate ourselves from “Asianness.” Until now!

While it was good to see this joy explosion and newfound confidence, it also made me think: if Koreans and Asians are feeling truly proud for the first time, then what were we feeling before? All this has just been a stark reminder that for so much of our lives, we’ve thought so little of ourselves. So many of us have spent our most formative years with that general desire to get away from Asianness. What kind of damage has that done to our community and how many years, if not decades, of rebuilding and healing do we have to do?

Can one trophy haul cure all that? Of course not. In order to rebuild and heal, what we need to do is commit to each other that whether our Asian culture is cool or not, we cannot and will not separate it from the people: the young, the old, the women, the men, the newly arrived, the native born, the rich, the poor, etc. This is what the often confusing and emotional arguments about cultural appropriation are really about. It’s about ignored and abandoned people who fear they will be further ignored and abandoned once they’re no longer even needed to make the (few) cultural products that the market has deemed profitable.

I’m sure we’ve known Asian Americans, especially “creative” Asian Americans, who’ve said shit like, “I don’t hang out with other Asians because I listen to indie rock and read Sartre.” Hell, some of us were those people themselves. What a delightful Fuck You to them that on the night of the 92nd Oscars, the most daring and charismatic artist in the room was a guy who looks like a Korean ajusshi.

After Parasite won, I saw many expressing a restored faith in the Oscars. But why should there have been any faith in the Oscars in the first place, except as an accident of history based on a once-dominant American culture? As long as the Academy (and other institutions like it) retain this power, the status quo hierarchy will remain. This year, a film like Parasite won. But it will not always be so. In fact, it will often not be so. In those instances, what will we do? Continually beg for the elites to give us a night like February 9, 2020 again, thus giving them the smug satisfaction that they have that power?

That aforementioned Korean ajusshi is now somewhat of an insider and some may hope that this can bring about institutional change. But how many Bongs will they actually let in? And how long until the few outsider invitees begin to identify too much with their insider peers? This is the same type of elitist inclusivity-driven diversity that I criticized in my very first Plan A piece as upholding the status quo and sowing divisions in outsider communities. Don’t fall for this trap that the Oscars have laid out.

But at the very least, thank god a Korean film like this won. No trauma porn, no white saviors, no dwelling on a ghostly past. Led a filmmaker with little fucks to give who negged his way to Hollywood glory. It’s a movie that’s so specifically Korean yet also universal enough that it has unnerved American culture. Hollywood must be wondering why they can’t make something like Parasite, and why endless debates about corporate products like The Last Jedi are the only political and social expressions in their cinema.

And get ready for yet another Batman movie.

Follow Chris on Twitter: @JesuInToast

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Chris Jesu Lee

Published 4 years ago

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