Borrok: When we don’t recognize foreign actors

Ben Borrok, Columnist

To say the victory for South Korean film, “Parasite,” at the Oscars on Sunday is monumental would be an understatement. For the first time in the 92-year history of the award show, its highest honor went to a film that was not in the English language. It is almost hard to comprehend how intentional that statistic is, especially when put into the context of film history.

Film isn’t an American idea. Reaching this high level of sophistication in storytelling took a collaborative effort that has spanned the last 120 years. The rise and fall of several experimental cinemas around the world pushed the boundaries in order to allow for the industry that exists today. Despite this, it has taken a Herculean effort to expand the scope of the Academy beyond the shores of America.

It took until 1956, or the 29th Academy Awards, to establish a category for foreign films where many of these films were simply boxed in and hardly ever considered for additional prizes. Rarely ever thought of as more than a token-like prize to appease the international audience, it took until 2019 to change the award’s name from “Foreign Language Feature” to “International Feature” in order to recognize the greater impact the world has on film. “Foreign” can often have negative connotations, often used in place of “other.”

The themes and ideas in these films are hardly ever foreign to an American audience, most notably those seen in the anti-capitalist narrative presented in “Parasite”. But the films also have the opportunity to introduce new concepts, to make the world feel connected and enable us to partake in rich cultures from all corners of the Earth. Movie theaters across America can transform into cultural centers, giving people the opportunity to “travel” from their hometown.

“Parasite” marks a significant step forward. It captivated American audiences, even with subtitles. The film received rave reviews from critics and moviegoers, a rare feat for any production, let alone one in Korean. Bong Joon-ho, the screenwriter and director, was lauded for creating a technical masterpiece that required great attention to detail. That compliment was mirrored in its Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, International Feature FIlm, Best Film Editing and Best Production Design. In short, the film was honored for every aspect despite one: the actors.

It takes perfection from everyone involved in order to win Best Picture. What could it be about Parasite’s cast that was not deserving of a single nomination? The Academy has an obvious issue with recognizing the achievements of minority actors, with only one of the 20 nominations this year given to a person of color. It is a glaring issue that has the potential to undermine the entire honor of the award show in the first place.

As for films that have won Best Picture, however, only two have won without a single acting nomination. In addition to “Parasite,” the actors in 2009 winner “Slumdog Millionaire” were also not recognized. It is unsurprising to learn that the cast was largely made up of minorities, as the film was a depiction of India. Both films addressed important themes of classism and poverty in capitalist societies, which is important to consider in an analysis of their actors’ performances.

The films depicted the pain and struggle involved in the act of surviving while poor. In “Parasite”, there is a distinct air of devastation conveyed by the actors, specifically by Song Kang-ho and Park So-dam, whose characters had to hide their true identities. The delivery of dialogue and facial expressions kept audiences on the edge of their seats — and yet, no dice.

Traditionally, many of the films we have come to enjoy have centered around a hero, rising through the ranks of society in order to do something great. “Parasite” refuses to follow this model, and instead, pulls back to curtain on capitalism in order to reveal the damage done to the working class. It is a reality that most do not want to inhabit themselves. Though it is rarely said, there is a notion that the impoverished are somehow less-than, especially compared to the ruling class. Part of it is a refusal to believe that we could one day be stuck in a similar situation, that a large portion of Americans are one trip to the hospital away from debt. Another part is America’s trend to turn in on itself and away from the ever-so-interconnected world. We do not easily recognize the efforts of people of color, including our own.

By not nominating “foreign” actors, we are implying that their performances did not make a difference in the production of a film. If “Parasite’s” cast couldn’t get the nod, it raises the question: what is it going to take to garner a nomination?

Despite this, there are many reasons for optimism. “Parasite” could boost international movies’ reputation within the US and hopefully encourage film distributors to pick up more titles unknown to most Americans. Though they garnered no nominations, audiences still raved about the actors, a sign that more people are willing to watch movies with diverse leads. Bong put it best when discussing the future of film when he said, “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” I’d like to think he is right.

Ben Borrok is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.