By Jeong Shin
Film is transformative. Tapping into happiness, sadness, frustration, empowerment, satisfaction and everything in between, film captures feelings that, sometimes, can’t be described with words. Looking back, some of my fondest memories have been associated with film in one way or another.
As a kid, I loved going to the local movie theater with my mom. We had a system: I’d beg her to take me to watch the newest animated film, we’d share the kids meal with kid-sized popcorn, a kid-sized soft drink and a pack of fruit snacks, and then we’d snag the best seats in the house — a row of seats in the upper quarter of the theater, in the middle, preferably with no one sitting in front of us so that we could put our feet up. As trivial as it may seem, watching films with my mom was one of the most meaningful aspects of my childhood, as it was one of the few ways I got to spend some time alone with her. Despite her difficulty understanding American films due to the language barrier between Korean and English, I’d say that with the combination of stellar animations on the screen and my intense review of the movie afterwards, she usually got a pretty good picture of the film’s premise.
Throughout middle school and high school, while I appreciated animated films from time to time, I was an absolute sucker for coming-of-age films. There was something about them that felt so cathartic to me. Perhaps it was the way a film could perfectly capture the same awkward encounter that I trudged through earlier that week. Or the way that I could freely feel anger, disappointment or sadness and attribute those moods to a movie scene instead of having to think about problems I wanted to avoid in my real life. No matter the reason for appreciation, films saw me at my worst. Watching movies was my ideal form of therapy.
Films have been etched into my upbringing, characterizing milestones that I would not be able to describe with my own vocabulary. Now, as a teenager, films still hold weight, but they hold a different type of weight. Discourse around the lack of diverse racial and ethnic representation in the film industry has encouraged me to contemplate what it means to me to have representation, and think more critically about the films I get to see.
One thing is clear — we can’t hold off on conversations around representation. These conversations need to happen, and they need to happen now. We need role models. We need films that capture life experiences through complicated, colorful lenses, because life isn’t black and white. We need to be able to look out into the mirror that is society and see people that look like us. And it isn’t enough to have representation for the sake of having representation. It is imperative that films have accurate representation of all communities, and that they get rid of offensive caricatures for the sake of propelling the character development of others.
But, I’m grateful to be able to say that hope is not lost. Current-day films and shows such as “Crazy Rich Asians,” “The Farewell,” “Jane the Virgin,” “Moonlight” and “The Grace Lee Project” keep the conversation around accurate representation in the media alive. More recently, I am overjoyed and inspired by the heightened representation I saw in this year’s Academy Awards.
At the 92nd Academy Awards, South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho won the Oscar for Best Director, and “Parasite” won Best Original Screenplay, Best International Feature Film and Best Picture. Individuals have been buzzing about the 2019 film ever since its release — and for good reason. Bong Joon-ho’s ability to illustrate such raw images of class hostility is chilling. From the cleverly calculated cinematographic shots to the minute details that add up to display a greater meaning, Bong Joon-ho tells the haunting truth of class division, as it is. Not only do I appreciate “Parasite” for its originality and gripping message, but I am especially fond of the film because of my South Korean identity. There are very few times in my life that a film I watch with my parents is understood completely by all three of us; watching “Parasite” was one of those times. I didn’t have to pause the film to answer my mom’s rapid-fire questions about the plot, or address my dad’s passive-aggressive comments about a lack of action scenes.
Seeing Bong Joon-ho and the rest of the South Korean cast on the Oscar stage filled me with an overflowing sense of jubilation that I will never, ever forget. “Parasite” spoke to me as a teenager who simply loves films. But it also spoke to me as a South Korean native, proud to see other Koreans receiving much deserved recognition in such a difficult industry.
As expected, there are several critics of the film, but I think one mutual agreement can be made: Representation in media is beautiful. Recognition and celebration of said representation is even more beautiful. There has been inevitable controversy surrounding the validity of its victories, much of it stemming from the fact that “Parasite” is the first non-English-speaking film to win Best Picture, the Academy’s most prestigious award. But, Bong Joon-ho put it best when he commented, “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”
When I was younger, watching films was a means to spend more time with my mom, or a means to get through the horrors of middle school. While those purposes haven’t faded, challenging myself to think more critically about films has allowed me to reap new benefits. Spending time to pick at plots, characters, set design, cinematography, atmospheric characteristics and representation of diverse communities has helped me develop a unique relationship to every film I see. “Parasite” and this year’s Academy Awards have planted overwhelming seeds of pride, hope and joy. I am so proud of Bong Joon-ho and of my motherland. But more importantly, I am so incredibly proud of the history that is being made. Here’s to more of these moments.
Contact Jeong Shin at jyshin ‘at’ stanford.edu if in need of a movie theater companion.