Parasite: the Future of Asian Representation in American Media

By: Tahnee Riddick

For decades there has been a minimal amount of Asian representation in Western media, but with the release of South Korean film Parasite, new grounds have been paved for Asian entertainers. 

Following the film’s release on Aug 30 2019, many were able to witness the masterpiece of Director, Bong Joon-ho. He shared a captivating tale of two South Korean families, both on opposite ends of the social class, who experience various unimaginable disturbances to their seemingly normal lives.

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“The story is very universal,” Bong told Variety in a recent interview. “It’s a story about rich and poor. But maybe there is something more.”

This can be found as a common theme in entertainment, but what sets this film apart from that of American, is not only the cultural difference, but the unpredictable decisions in which the characters chose to make.

Since the early 2000s, South Korean entertainers have been gradually working in and out of the United States. The most impactful wave of South Korean entertainers were those in Korean pop music, commonly referred to as K-pop.Seeing as music is listened to worldwide, the singers in K-pop train for years to be the perfect performer. They are known to be presentable vocally and visually.

Artists like Big Bang, Super Junior and Girls Generation promoted this genre of music and made it known to many internationally. This sound was reachable only to those who were open to this unique pop taste. These promotions however, weren’t as impactful until stars like Psy and BTS made their viral presence known in the media years later. 

Fans of this genre began to delve deeper into the Korean culture and discover what more it had to offer. These days, fans have grown attracted to the culture for its food, language, dramas as well as the music. Korean dramas, regularly referred to as Kdramas, are another primary form of entertainment for international viewers aside from listening to K-pop. These television shows are intriguing in a way that can mentally stimulate the imagination and visually please the eye. Kdramas have spiked in the year 2016 when conceptually versatile shows like Descendants of the Sun, W-Two Worlds and Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo aired on television. 

Viewers craze over the way that Korean dramas can emotionally pull in the audience within the first episode. The genre variety is endless and there is a show for anyone. 

The impressive quality of Kdramas only led viewers wanting to explore beyond dramas and into film. On July 20 2016, Train to Busan became one of the highest critically acclaimed films of South Korea, earning several nominations and awards for its performance. Amid a zombie outbreak, a father and his daughter take a train to Busan, the last safe place in Korea. It was named among one of the best in the Horror sub-genre and grossed over $93 billion worldwide. 

Looking back, we have come a long way in terms of Asian actors being able to step foot on set. Prior to that transition, the Asian character, like that of an African American, would usually be acted out by a Caucasian. Such actors would wear exaggerated makeup so that the character could be portrayed as the stereotypical person of that ethnicity. For African American people this practice would be referred to as Blackface, and for the Asian, Yellowface. They created caricatures out of these people. 

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In an article by History.com, Nancy Wang Yuen, Associate Professor at Biola University and author of Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism, explains exactly what the purpose of this practice was.

“In minstrelsy, that was part of the performance. Putting on a costume, and everyone knew you were in a costume, and then using that yellowface performance to ridicule or villainize Asians in a way that was entertaining for its audience,” says Nancy Wang Yuen.

We have progressed so far as a country by allowing a somewhat more diverse community within the entertainment industry, but something is lacking.

Although there have been other films, the introduction of Parasite to the Western general public created the opportunity to break through a cultural barrier. This film built a bridge where there was still a disconnect between countries. 

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The film was the first of its kind to build a large audience which was extremely vocal online. Many of those, internationally, who indulge themselves in South Korean culture viewed the film and created a domino effect of recommendations. Just seeing the consistent praise of the film intrigued those who would have never thought to watch a foreign film, let alone one that is South Korean. 

Of course, with an increase in popularity, any positivity will come with negativity. Among those not experienced in watching foreign films, there have been viewers complaining about the language barrier. What would one expect from a movie created in another country in which English is not the primary language? What people tend to forget, is that English is not a universal language. Yes, it is commonly used and taught around the world, but it comes third to Chinese and Spanish. 

A viral tweet sparked the conversation revolving around this issue, one that an admin of Hulu’s official twitter account chose to address.    

On Apr 8th 2020, a Twitter user replied under Hulu’s post about Parasite’s addition to the platform. 

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Despite a few of the close minded remarks, Parasite proved to be much more than any opinion that was spit against it. The film earned over $100 million worldwide. The cast and crew earned numerous deserving accolades acknowledging the work placed into the project. Parasite made Oscar history by winning four prizes at the 2020 Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Foreign Language Film and Best Director. In addition, the film was also nominated for two other categories. It is the first South Korean movie to win the top prize of the Cannes Film Festival. It earned awards from the Golden Globe Awards as well as the British Academy Film Awards. 

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The list of accomplishments can go on and on. 

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Hopefully, the world will be able to acknowledge and enjoy the hard work of Asian entertainers. Acknowledge Asians in general without closing them into a stereotype. Many need to move past deeply rooted xenophobia, whether they admit to containing or not. It is a shared space and if people of other cultures can be allowed a platform then it should be an open opportunity for all. 

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