SAG Awards 2020: why that Parasite win means so much for Asian representation

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In a year of #Oscarssowhite, recognition for the South Korean cast of Parasite is a major step in the right direction.

The data doesn’t lie. That’s the thing about statistics: they tell a story honestly and unflinchingly. And the story that the data around Asian representation at the Oscars tells is particularly galling.

Only three Asians have ever won acting awards. In fact, Asian actors have only made up 1% of the nominations in the history of the ceremony, and they have never, not once, been nominated in the category of Lead Actor. As far as the Oscars are concerned, Asian actors are largely invisible and unworthy of recognition. There have been six films in Oscars history with predominantly Asian casts that have been showered with recognition at the Academy Awards without receiving a single nomination for its cast.

That includes movies like The Last Emperor (nine nominations, none in acting), Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (10 nominations, none in acting), Memoirs Of A Geisha (six nominations, none in acting), Slumdog Millionaire (10 nominations, none in acting), Life Of Pi (11 nominations, none in acting) and, this year, Parasite, which received six Oscar nominations. None in acting.

Parasite, the latest film from South Korean director Bong Joon Ho, is one of the year’s most critically acclaimed films. 

Parasite: could this movie win Oscars?

The film, which follows a poor family who slowly infiltrate the life of a wealth family living in Seoul, is equal parts nail-biting thriller and whip-smart satire and has won awards out of the Cannes Film Festival and at the Golden Globes. By clinching a nomination in the Best International Film category at the 2020 Oscars, it became – somewhat incredibly, considering the history of South Korean cinema – the first South Korean movie in history to do so. (It also picked up nominations for Best Director, Best Picture, Best Production Design and more.) Fans of the movie, which hits cinemas in the UK in February, have been tweeting up a storm using the viral hashtag #BongHive.

All this, without a single nomination for Parasite’s cast Chang Hyae Jin, Cho Yeo Jeong, Choi Woo Shik, Lee Jung Eun, Lee Sun Kyun, Park So Dam and Song Kang Ho at most of the major awards ceremonies, including the Oscars.

The sole exception to this is the Screen Actors Guild Awards, where Parasite became the first foreign film in the event’s history to win the award for Best Ensemble. At the SAGs, an awards ceremony voted on by members of the actors union and primarily designed to reward their work, this recognition of Parasite’s cast was so important. It was a reminder that in an industry that continues to prioritise white actors, the impeccable work of Asian stars including Song Kang Ho, Park So Dam and Cho Yeo Jeong did not go unnoticed. 

SAG Awards 2020: the cast of Parasite, including Park So Dam, Lee Sun Gyun, Choi Woo Shik, Lee Jong Eun and Song Kang Ho celebrate their win.

As the 10-strong ensemble cast of the film ascended the stage at the SAGs, becoming the first foreign language film to win the award, director Bong celebrated from the crowd.

Speaking in Korean, through a translator, Song joked: “To be honoured with this award, it occurs to me that maybe we haven’t created such a bad movie.”

He added: “I am so honoured to receive this award in front of so many actors that I admire. I will never forget this beautiful night, thank you so much.”

Backstage, Choi Woo Shik, who plays Ki-woo, the son of the poor Kim family who goes to work for the glamorous Parks as a tutor, summed up the power of giving an award like the SAG to a foreign cast. “Other than us, there are so many legends out there in foreign countries,” he said. “I truly hope that maybe next year or the year after, lots more foreign casts… We can see more foreign language films and Asian films.” 

SAG Awards 2020: the cast of Parasite on the red carpet with director Bong Joon Ho.

This is a hope that I, an Asian woman and an unabashed fan of cinema, share. At the Golden Globes, I celebrated Awkwafina’s historic Best Actress win for The Farewell as if it were my own. I spent the night before the Oscar nominations were announced last week praying that both she and her co-star Zhao Shuzhen would be nominated for their sublime work as a grandmother battling cancer and her granddaughter who desperately wants to say goodbye. Neither were recognised.

I hoped that Song Kang Ho, who plays the Kim patriarch in Parasite, a performance that oscillated between barefaced longing and unfathomable despair, would be nominated in the Supporting Actor category. He was not. I kept my fingers crossed that Cho Yeo Jeong, whose turn as the glossy-haired, ever-so-ditzy Kim matriarch was a work of finely-tuned comedic art, would be nominated as Best Supporting Actress. She was not. 

I hoped that Park So Dam, whose Jessica jingle from the film has been doing the rounds of the internet for the better part of last year, would be nominated. She was not. All of these performances were not only worthy of nominations, but demanding of them: Parasite is, quite simply, one of the best-acted movies of the year.

“It’s boring to talk about, but it must be said that there’s a persistent prejudice against Asian actors within Hollywood,” Vulture’s E Alex Jung wrote when the Oscar nominations were announced and not a single Asian actor was nominated. Again.

“It’s why studio executives say they can’t green-light a film with an Asian lead, and why an Asian actor has never been nominated in Best Actor or Best Actress… There’s an old prejudice at work here that sees Asian people as technical workers – hence the praise for Bong Joon Ho – and refused to see us as fully human.” 

The Farewell review: an overwhelmingly honest look at family, love and grief

The Farewell was directed by Lulu Wang and stars Awkwafina.

Justin Chang, writing for Los Angeles Times, added: “Some might argue that the seamlessness and coherence of the Parasite ensemble may actually have worked against it, keeping any single actor from standing out. To me, that argument is not just false on its face but ugly in its insinuations: It comes close to perpetuating a hoary canard about Asian actors and Asian people in general, which is that they’re indistinguishable and interchangeable.”

Tonight’s SAG Awards, voted on and awarded by the members of the acting union, is a crucial piece of recognition that Asian actors are not indistinguishable and interchangeable. That they are not invisible. That when we see Asian actors in films, we are really seeing them.

Asian representation in Hollywood has slowly, but surely, increased ever since the release of Crazy Rich Asians in 2018. But the complete shut out of Asian actors at the 2020 Oscars proves that there is still a long way to go. By recognising the cast of Parasite, the SAGs recognised the vast and unique talent of its Korean acting cast when no other awards show would. It was an important step in the right direction, one that will hopefully usher in a new era, one that celebrates and applauds the work of Asian actors in Hollywood. 

Watch the video of their acceptance speech; play close attention to their heart-swelling and inspiring whoops and cheers. The cast of Parasite could not have been happier – or more deserving – to be up there receiving their SAG Award.

Here’s hoping it’s a sight we see repeated on Oscars night next month. In a year of #Oscarssowhite, nothing could be more vital. 

Images: Getty, Parasite, The Farewell

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Hannah-Rose Yee

Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer based in London. You can find her on the internet talking about movies, television and Chris Pine.

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