But when news followed that the HBO spinoff series will possibly star Mark Ruffalo, many expressed disappointment.
It’s the latest example of the industry’s practice of remaking Asian films with white actors for U.S. audiences, suggesting that while the industry has evolved from Mickey Rooney’s racist depiction of a Japanese man in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” there is still a long way to go in terms of representation.
“ ‘Parasite’ just felt like such an affirmation of Asian talent, both behind the scenes and in front of the scenes,” said Nancy Wang Yuen, a sociologist and author of “Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism.” “I think to have the U.S. version be white feels like a downer compared to the uproar that we experienced as a community.”
In her study of broadcast, cable and digital platform television shows, Yuen found premium cable was the worst offender, with 74 percent of its shows having no Asian representation, as compared with the other platforms, with around 60 percent of shows having no representation in the 2015-2016 season. Out of all the shows that included Asian actors, 87 percent were on-screen for less than half an episode. Over one-third of these Asian actors appeared in only 11 shows, and by the time her report was published in 2017, over half of those shows were canceled or not renewed, cutting overall Asian representation by 21 percent.
“If representation wasn’t such a problem in the United States, this conversation wouldn’t be as poignant,” said Yuen, an associate professor of sociology at Biola University. “I think the problem is their idea that an American remake has to be white when the United States is actually a multicultural society. So it reinforces the idea that America is white and that Hollywood is white. So if you take a movie from another country and remake it, it has to be a white cast. And that makes people of color who live in the United States feel excluded and othered.”
American adaptations of popular Korean movies have featured all-white casts, like “Oldboy” and “My Sassy Girl.” Characters have also been whitewashed, like Emma Stone as a quarter-Chinese, quarter-Hawaiian character in 2015’s “Aloha,” Scarlett Johansson as the Japanese character Motoko Kusanagi in 2017’s “Ghost in the Shell,” plus Tilda Swinton’s casting as the Ancient One, which was supposed to be a mystical old Asian man in Tibet, for 2016’s “Doctor Strange.”
Asian directors can be just as culpable, like Zhang Yimou’s casting of Matt Damon as the lead in the 2017 movie “The Great Wall.” Actually, “Parasite” director Bong Joon-Ho is involved in this HBO series, teaming up with Adam McKay, executive producer and director of HBO’s “Succession.”
“The HBO limited series inspired by ‘Parasite’ is in the early stages of development, and to speculate on any characters or casting is wildly premature," said a statement from HBO.
In response to this recurring trend, William Yu created the popular hashtag #StarringJohnCho, reimagining the lead of popular films by photoshopping in Korean American actor John Cho. The hashtag got over a billion impressions all over the world in 2016,
“The knock on Asian American actors is they have never carried something before, so how can they be trusted to carry a new project,” said Yu, a Los Angeles screenwriter. “With ‘Parasite,’ the entire world just witnessed a foreign language film with actors and a cast that had no discernible Hollywood star in it, set in a non-Western society come and sweep the Oscars. I think there’s a lot of hope that … movies like this with faces like these can translate on a global level and can connect with an audience that doesn’t necessarily look like them.”
But Yu said word that HBO was considering Ruffalo to star in its spinoff suggests “maybe we’re not quite there yet.”
Adapting an Asian movie, regardless of who is cast, has its own challenges, too, Yuen said. Although there are universal themes, such as exploitation, there are culturally specific details, like the ramen mixture shown in “Parasite” that emphasized the class struggle. Spike Lee’s version of “Oldboy” didn’t necessarily translate these nuances, such as the scene involving the live-eating of an octopus.
As a result, these remakes were not as successful in the box office or reviews as the originals, with “Oldboy” being one of the bigger flops of 2013. The exception, Yuen said, is 2006’s “The Departed,” possibly because Martin Scorsese used the 2002 original gangster movie “Infernal Affairs” as more of a jumping-off point. For example, he set his characters very much at home in South Boston as Irish Catholics, as opposed to the original in Hong Kong as Buddhists.
Adaptations themselves are nothing new, displaying at least a recognition that the stories were good, like Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film, “Seven Samurai,” which was remade into a western. Its basic story line is about a group of misfits with special skills who rally together and seems to have provided inspiration for everything from “A Bug’s Life” to “Oceans Eleven.” Another Kurosawa remake was 1961’s “Yojimbo” into 1964’s “A Fistful of Dollars,” with Clint Eastwood in his first leading role. It was later remade into “Last Man Standing” with Bruce Willis in 1996.
“But there was a real fear that his films, you know, wouldn’t translate,” said Stephen Gong, executive director of the Center for Asian American Media. “So they remade a lot of them as westerns. The ‘Seven Samurai’ became ‘The Magnificent Seven.’ … The U.S. westerns are kind of interesting, but not nearly as masterful as the original.”
But with “Parasite” director Bong at the helm of this HBO spinoff, Gong is not as worried, especially if Bong wants to further develop the story.
Overall, Asian representation across movies is slowly getting better.
The percentage of top roles starring Asians in Hollywood has grown from 3.1 percent in 2016 to 5 percent in 2019, according to the Hollywood Diversity Report by the University of California at Los Angeles. While Asians are still underrepresented, the percentage is slowly inching up to their share of the U.S. population — 5.9 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The tide is turning with movies like “Crazy Rich Asians” and “The Farewell,” as well as roles for Asian American and Canadian actors in series in which they just happen to be Asian, like Manny Jacinto in NBC’s “The Good Place” and Lana Condor in Netflix’s “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.”
By contrast, the number of Asians in decision-making roles continues to lag: Directors made up 3.4 percent and writers 2.8 percent.
“There’s an energy that you feel that people want to hear more of these stories. People are wanting to feel the richness of the culture and also to see what new possibilities these types of perspectives can open up narratively,” Yu said. “Frankly, I see this as just the beginning.”
That same Hollywood study also found that, consistently for the past nine years, if the cast is more than 20 percent diverse for English-language movies, it pulls in more at the global box office. Looking at audience demographics, this might be fueled by minority audiences, who disproportionately bought the majority of tickets for the top films in 2019. This is evident with social media pushes like the “gold open,” in which Asian Americans set up group screenings and bought tickets for strangers to watch “Crazy Rich Asians” on opening day.
“Diversity sells,” said Ana-Christina Ramón, co-author of the study and the director of research and civic engagement at UCLA. “There’s a lot more enthusiasm for people of color. And that’s where I think it’s untapped in terms of Asian and Latino representation on screen and behind the scenes because the industry is probably leaving money on the table, you know, and they’re taking them for granted.”