It was three years ago when I saw the original 1954 Godzilla movie for the first time. I was an undergraduate in New York studying film when I had received an assignment for my editing class to watch both the original Japanese release of Godzilla (or Gojira natively) and the alternate version which came to the United States just two years later. Initially, when given this prompt, I believed we would be comparing which scenes were cut between Gojira and Godzilla or ways in which the dialogue was altered through American subtitles. Instead, I was disappointed, but not surprised, to find the original kaiju classic to have been altered quite drastically. Gojira, which once followed a Japanese family in conflict over how to handle the prolific beast ravaging their village, had now been dubbed and filtered through the white male lens of an American reporter as the film’s new protagonist. The change was thanks to additional footage shot and edited together to make the film more “marketable” to American audiences - a move purely for comforting white fragility and post-war anti-Japanese sentiments of the 1950s.
Over half a century later, on February 9th, 2020, Americans turned on their television screens to see an all-Asian cast standing on a Hollywood stage, speaking in their native Korean. Parasite, directed by Bong Joon-ho, had just made history by being the first non-English language film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards – but how did we get here?
Joon-ho and his cast never appeared to be the likely winners for this category, as film critics were adamant about this in the days leading up to the Oscars. Other popular foreign film nominations of the past, such as 2019’s Roma, were only given Best Picture nominations as a courtesy and then granted the less prestigious Best International Film Award over a more palatable English-language film. Parasite was also an unlikely win in that all-Asian casts in American cinema had been virtually non-existent. The 1993 Joy Luck Club was the only example until this past year’s Crazy Rich Asians; both films notably written and directed by Asian-Americans.
Parasite’s popularity with American audiences came through exploring a shared exploitative and capitalistic experience of wealth inequality and upper-class apathy to the poor man’s condition that is familiar in both South Korea and the States. Additionally, the use of the thriller genre with black comedy elements to convey this message was effective, echoing the approach of the wildly successful Jordan Peele film, Get Out (2017). American media has also seen a general rise of diversity in other aspects of the arts, becoming more inclusive to Asian artists, as Korean pop groups continue to dominate the charts and make frequent appearances at American award shows.
Yet, there seems to be some irony that just a month after Parasite’s win, strong anti-Asian sentiments would emerge in the U.S. amidst the coronavirus hysteria. It calls to question whether white Americans are truly ready to accept people of color, or are no different from our past, fetishizing “exotic” aesthetics instead of valuing the significance of the lives of the people who create such culture.
I think, sadly, it may just be the latter.