Can Asia Finally Break Through at the Oscars?

Source Image Neon, Composite Sean Culligan/OZY

Why you should care

The Oscars represent a stunning lack of diversity when it comes to geography. In 2020, Asia looks poised to change that.

Parasite won four Oscars on Feb. 9, including the first-ever Best Picture award to a non-English language film in the history of the Academy. It also won the Best Director, Best International Feature and Best Original Screenplay awards. This article was originally published on Jan. 28.

South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho has said he believes that filmmakers don’t make movies for continents or countries, but to indulge their personal dreams. 

Yet when Korean American actor John Cho stepped onstage on Jan. 13 to announce the nominees for the 92nd Academy Awards, Bong had a premonition that it might be his lucky year, he later told journalists. Parasite, his chilling movie about the complicated relationship between a poor family and a rich one, is the first Asian film to be nominated in six categories — best picture, best director, best international film, best original screenplay, best film editing and best production design. Parasite has struck a chord across geographies, and it’s leading Asia’s surge to finally being noticed by the Academy. 

The #OscarsSoWhite debate has largely focused on the lack of people of color being recognized by the Academy Awards. But the Oscars and other major American award ceremonies such as the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild Awards and the Critics’ Choice Awards also represent a stunning lack of geographic diversity. Asia is challenging that.

Eighty-three percent of the Academy’s best foreign language film awards — now renamed best international film — have gone to European films. Over the past decade, three movies from the Asian continent — the Japanese funeral drama Departures (2009) and two Iranian films, Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation (2012) and The Salesman (2017) — have won. Of the 34 Asian winners across all categories in the history of the Oscars, 22 have held aloft their trophies since the turn of the millennium.

It’s a tipping point.

Smriti Mundhra, co-director of the Oscar-nominated St. Louis Superman

This year, that slow shift among major American awards is promising to give way to a dramatic breakthrough. Earlier this month, Awkwafina became the first woman of Asian descent to win a Golden Globe in a lead actress category, for The Farewell, directed by Chinese American Lulu Wang. The short documentary St. Louis Superman, nominated for an Oscar this year, is co-directed by Indian American Smriti Mundhra and Indian Canadian Sami Khan and produced by Malaysia-born Poh Si Teng.

Parasite — which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and also scored at the Golden Globes, the Critics’ Choice Awards and the Screen Actors Guild Awards — has been named by critics such as The Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg as a top contender for the best picture Oscar. No non-English film has ever won that award.

“It’s a tipping point … I hope there is going to be a dramatic change in the coming years,” says Mundhra, whose film is about 34-year-old Black Ferguson, Missouri, activist Bruce Franks Jr. “The conversation that Parasite has kick-started is extremely exciting.” 

The Academy’s complex rules remain a major challenge for global films. The renaming of the best foreign language film award as the best international film this year was aimed at not “othering” films in different languages. Yet it has also made it harder for films in languages other than English. The Farewell, for instance, doesn’t qualify for the award even though it’s almost entirely in Mandarin, because Wang is American.

Simultaneously, Nigeria’s first-ever Oscar submission, Lionheart, was disqualified because it is primarily in English, that country’s most-spoken language. So is a film “international” based on language or on geography? “There has to be some deeper thought about what makes a film international,” says Mundhra.

farewell lines

Source Ray Productions / Composite Sean Culligan

To be sure, other roadblocks exist. China, for instance, generally submits politically safe films, says Hong Kong–based film critic James Marsh. “Provocative films by directors such as Jia Zhangke are passed over despite them garnering festival recognition,” he maintains. “Similarly, there are allegations that the recent selections from India are marred with nepotism and cronyism.”

But Marsh also notes that contemporary Asian films often fail to connect with Academy members in a way that French, Italian or Mexican films do. That’s not surprising given the Academy’s membership: Only 16 percent of its members are people of color — although that’s an improvement from 8 percent in 2015. “By having an international film category, we’re sort of saying that the Oscars are an American institution, which may be true, maybe that’s what it is,” says Mundhra. “But there also needs to be an honest conversation about what exactly is American — it cannot be stories of just White people.”

She believes the exclusion of foreign-language films from most major award categories is a lingering legacy of colonialism — a film is considered national only when it’s related to “White people.” Awkwafina is only the fourth Golden Globe lead actress winner in the past two decades to not even win a nomination for the best actress Oscar. Parasite’s cast, meanwhile, hasn’t won Western nominations and awards, while the film itself has earned $25 million in the United States. That shows how, while there’s appreciation in the West for films from other parts of the world, “they really don’t see the individuals who have made that possible,” Mundhra says.

Still, Asian films are increasingly making their mark due to their quality. Bong has pointed to The Handmaiden, by Park Chan-wook, which won a British Academy of Film and Television Arts Award in 2018, and Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, which was on the Oscars short list last year, as precursors to Parasite’s success.

The rise of markets like China and India, the breakdown in the dominance of studios and the emergence of streaming services such as Amazon and Netflix are also fueling the change, says Janet Yang, a producer and an Academy governor at large. “They’re looking for global markets; they have a completely different formula, and that’s created a stomach for movies from elsewhere,” she says of streaming services.

And the Asian virtue of patience is on the side of filmmakers with roots there. “I have Chinese parents and a Chinese mother who, whenever things are too good, is like, ‘Keep your head down, be careful,’” said Wang in an iHeartRadio podcast. “It was always just sort of like one step at a time, one foot in front of the other.” In 2020, though, Asia might just be poised for a giant leap.

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