“Although the title is ‘Parasite,’ I think the story is about coexistence and how we can all live together,” lead actor Song Kang-ho said through an interpreter. “But to be honored with a best ensemble award,” he jokingly added, “it occurs to me that maybe we haven’t created such a bad movie.”
By every metric available, South Korea’s “Parasite” is far from a bad movie. It did well at the box office, earned near-universal praise from critics and is up for six Oscars, including best picture. But despite the accolades for Bong Joon-ho’s biting drama, none of the film’s actors received nominations, and their performances were given little consideration this awards season beyond the SAG trophy.
It follows a familiar pattern. Just a handful of actors of Asian descent have ever won an Oscar, including Miyoshi Umeki, a Japanese American who won best supporting actress for 1957′s “Sayonara,” and Ben Kingsley, whose father was of Indian descent, who won best actor for 1982′s “Gandhi.”
Asian actors have historically had few roles in major theatrical releases; in 2018, they held 4.8 percent of roles in the 200 top-grossing films, according to the latest Hollywood Diversity Report released Thursday by the University of California at Los Angeles. Some films featuring largely Asian casts have received academy recognition. But while “Last Emperor,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Memoirs of a Geisha,” “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Life of Pi” all received more than five Oscar nominations, none was for acting.
Other films have racked up at least the same number of nods with no recognition for acting, including this year’s “1917.” But of the 58 movies that reach that threshold, ones featuring Asians and Asian Americans are overrepresented, said Ben Zauzmer, author of “Oscarmetrics.”
“Historically and to the present day, the academy is more willing to honor films with Asian casts than to honor individual Asian actors,” Zauzmer said.
The history of Asians and Asian Americans in Hollywood has been one of troubling or very little representation, said Catherine Ceniza Choy, a professor of Asian American and Asian diaspora studies at the University of California at Berkeley.
They’ve been shown on-screen “as one-dimensional stereotypes,” such as subhuman villains, “a racialized horde or invasion” or “superhuman” model minority characters, she said. The moviegoing public, including Oscar voters, may therefore be conditioned to seeing Asians as “a type, as opposed to a human being with an individual personality who would be of interest, a nuanced character,” she added.
During the silent-film era, Asian actors were confined to playing stereotypical parts, and soon the movie industry’s depiction of Asians came via white actors “with scotchtaped eyes,” said Elaine Kim, a professor emerita of Asian American and Asian diaspora studies at UCB.
Kim cited decades of policy that excluded Asian immigrants from entering the United States as influencing perceptions of Asians, including on-screen. “Until recently, many Americans thought that Asians were foreigners who could never be considered ‘American,’ so naturally it would be jarring, they thought, for white viewers to see Asians portraying ‘Americans’ on the silver screen even as black Americans were coming to be thought of as quintessentially ‘American,’” Kim said via email.
And while “yellow face” may no longer be a standard Hollywood practice, “whitewashing” — white actors playing Asian characters — still happens, from Emma Stone’s casting in “Aloha” to Tilda Swinton in “Doctor Strange.”
“Asian and Asian Americans couldn’t even play themselves, the assumption being that talented acting belongs to white, Western actors,” Choy said. “That has also infused the industry’s consciousness, as well as of the general public.”
To be considered in the Oscar acting categories, Asian and Asian American actors often have to compete against their better-known white counterparts, who are more likely to have star power and a history of appearing in top films. “To even be put in the dialogue about who gets to deserve the awards — do we even know who this person is?” said culture critic and “They Call Us Bruce” podcast co-host Jeff Yang. “We have a self-fulfilling prophecy of people who have already gotten visibility getting more visibility.”
The conversation around representation has become more prominent in the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign. The academy made pledges to diversify its membership and, since 2016, the share of voting members who are people of color has doubled — to 16 percent.
The lack of acting nods for “Parasite,” as well as “The Farewell,” another critically acclaimed film with Asian and Asian American actors, speaks “to the membership of the academy and who is actually doing the voting,” said #OscarsSoWhite founder April Reign. Despite the changes, the Asian American Pacific Islander “community is still woefully underrepresented within the academy, on-screen and behind the camera.”
Because new members are being added to an Oscars voting body that was overwhelmingly older, white and male, “it’s going to take years and years before you approach anything resembling the diversity of America,” said Darnell Hunt, a sociologist and dean of social sciences at UCLA who co-authors the annual Hollywood Diversity Report.
There’s an additional hurdle in the case of “Parasite”: No foreign-language film has ever won a best picture Oscar, signaling the academy’s attitude toward such movies. “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films,” Bong said through an interpreter as he accepted the trophy for best foreign-language film at the Golden Globes last month.
“Both Asian and Asian American actors tend to be [perceived as] anonymous and vaguely foreign, and therefore sort of invisible in the minds of prospective academy voters,” Yang said. “It’s even harder in some way for Asian films, as they’re often relegated to the foreign-language or best international film categories. Therefore the visibility of Asian actors is almost nil.”
For an actor, winning an Oscar represents industry respect, more meaningful roles or better career opportunities. But that’s not always the case. Reign pointed out how Octavia Spencer, a black actress who won an Oscar for “The Help,” didn’t make commensurate pay on a film set until Jessica Chastain, a white actress who didn’t have an Oscar, advocated for her. “With respect to the black women who have been nominated for Academy Awards, we have not seen the opportunities that we expect,” Reign said.
Still, an Oscar win sends a message to studios and production companies about film budgets and what kinds of projects deserve attention. “The Oscars are critical because what they do is establish standards,” Hunt said. “If a particular type of film is routinely or traditionally considered Oscar-worthy, then the industry will keep making that.”
“Parasite” could win best picture. It’s one of the front-runners, thanks in no small part to that SAG ensemble award. So although the actors won’t be able to collect individual trophies on Sunday, their work could still prove crucial in helping make Oscars history.
“It is true that the momentum is building and we are part of the awards race and campaign,” Bong told journalists after the SAGs. “But I think today what’s truly important is that these actors were acknowledged by fellow peers, acknowledged as the best ensemble cast of this year, and that’s the greatest joy of this night.”
Correction: In a photo caption from the SAG Awards uploaded from a wire service, actress Park So-dam was misidentified. The caption has been updated.