Represent a Nation: The 2020 Rollercoaster of Representation

By Hanna Fernan ’24 for Fall 2020 Issue

2020 has most definitely affected several industries, specifically film, as production and releases of movies are being continuously postponed. In terms of Asian and Pacific Islander representation, the highs and lows largely  corresponded with the tumultuous waves of 2020. Spanning across historic moments to genuine perspectives to lack of nominees, representation was quite the rollercoaster, beginning with a historical high. 

Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite was a defining movie in terms of its brilliant filmmaking as well as its significance in the Asian community. It has made history through its several nominations and awards, becoming “the first non-English-language movie to win the Academy’s top award” (Giorgis) of Best Picture, in addition to winning Academy Awards for Best Original Screenplay, Best International Film, and Best Director. Besides the Oscars, Parasite has won at several ceremonies, like the BAFTAs, the Golden Globes, and the Screen Actors Guild Awards, alongside winning the highly esteemed Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival last year. 

A similar high of 2020 would be Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, gaining acclaim for its heartfelt portrayal of the divide between Western and Eastern culture. The Farewell received several nominations and won the Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical or Comedy Motion Picture, the Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Actress, and the Independent Spirit Award for Best Feature. However, it did not receive any Academy Awards despite how powerful The Farewell was, raising controversy surrounding how the Academy addresses diversity. 

Controversy still remains as Parasite’s actors were not nominated in any category. In all of history, only three Asian actors have won an Oscar: Miyoshi Umeki for Best Supporting Actress in Sayonara in 1958, Sir Ben Kingsley for Best Actor in Gandhi in 1983, and Haing S. Ngor for Best Supporting Actor in The Killing Fields in 1984 (Casino). Dev Patel was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for Lion (2016), but only won the BAFTA, not the Academy Award, that year. Therefore, it is still evident that representation, despite its historic moments, is not as equal as is desired.  

“Therefore, it is still evident that representation, despite its historic moments, is not as equal as is desired.”

The onset of COVID-19 has definitely hindered several films’ releases, forcing movies to be released digitally or to be postponed. One notable Asian-led movie that opted for a Video-On-Demand release was the live adaptation of Mulan, which notoriously gained controversy over several issues, such as the affiliation with Xinjiang, and the lead’s support of the Hong Kong police. On the opposite end, The Green Knight, led by Dev Patel, was originally set to release earlier in 2020, but as of now, has not yet confirmed whether it will be released digitally or onscreen in the future (Surrey). Overall, the lack of Asian leads, specifically in the early months of the pandemic, was a clear — but temporary — low for Asian representation.

Though COVID-19 has made it more difficult than ever to watch movies in a theater, virtual film festivals and limited openings in the months following August have allowed prominent Asian films to be released. Specifically, Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari has been screened at several festivals, which is definitely a high, as audiences have enjoyed this authentic, heartfelt portrayal of a Korean family in 1980’s Arkansas. Besides Chung, Chloe Zhao has been praised for directing Nomadland (a poetic look at the restlessness of the Great Recession), having won awards at several film festivals. In terms of the indie genre, Yellow Rose has gained some popularity for being a unique exploration of a Filipina teen’s relationship with music and the Asian American immigrant experience in Texas (Debruge). These films, even during COVID-19, provide hope towards the emergence of future significant representation.. 

Altogether, Asian representation in films of 2020 reached highs and lows, which were clearly dependent on the events that transpired this year. That being said, it is still remarkable to see the several steps taken to provide inclusion for the Asian and Pacific Islander community. No matter the circumstances, it is still imperative that the film industry include and recognize the achievements of our community.

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