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HBO’s Parasite remake with Mark Ruffalo raises whitening concerns

It is the latest example of the industry’s practice of remaking Asian films with white actors for the American public, suggesting that while the industry evolved from Mickey Rooney’s racist portrayal of a Japanese in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, there is there is still a long way to go in terms of representation.

“The” parasite “seemed like such an affirmation of Asian talent, both behind the scenes and in front of the scenes,” said Nancy Wang Yuen, sociologist and author of “Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism”. “I think having the white American version is like a negative aspect of the turmoil we have experienced as a community.”

In his study of cable, digital and digital TV programs, Yuen found that premium cable was the worst offender, with 74 percent of his shows without Asian representation, compared to other platforms, with around 60 percent of shows without representation in the 2015-2016 season. Of all the shows that included Asian actors, 87% were on screen for less than half an episode. Over a third of these Asian actors appeared in just 11 shows, and when its report was released in 2017, over half of these shows were canceled or not renewed, cutting the overall Asian representation by 21%.

“If representation were not such a problem in the United States, this conversation would not be so touching,” said Yuen, associate professor of sociology at the University of Biola. “I think the problem is their idea that an American remake should be white when the United States is actually a multicultural society. So it reinforces the idea that America is white and that Hollywood is white. So if you take a film from another country and do it again, it must be a white cast. And this makes people of color living in the United States feel excluded and upset. “

American adaptations of popular Korean films have featured entirely white cast, such as “Oldboy” and “My Sassy Girl”. The characters have also been whitened, such as Emma Stone as a Chinese quarter and Hawaiian quarter in the 2015 film “Aloha”, Scarlett Johansson as the Japanese character Motoko Kusanagi in 2017 in “Ghost in the Shell”, in addition to the casting of Tilda Swinton like the old one, who was supposed to be an old Asian mystic in Tibet, for “Doctor Strange” in 2016.

Asian directors may be just as guilty, such as Zhang Yimou’s casting of Matt Damon as the protagonist in the 2017 film “The Great Wall”. In fact, director of “Parasite” Bong Joon-Ho is involved in this HBO series, collaborating with Adam McKay, executive producer and director of HBO’s “Succession”. HBO has not commented on the series, which is in the early stages of planning.

In response to this recurring trend, William Yu created the famous hashtag #StarringJohnCho, reinventing the guide to popular films by doing photoshopping in the Korean American actor John Cho. The hashtag got over a billion impressions worldwide in 2016,

“The blow to Asian American actors is that they never brought anything before, so how can you trust to bring a new project,” said Yu, a Los Angeles-based screenwriter. “With” Parasite “, the whole world has just witnessed a foreign language film with actors and a cast that didn’t have a recognizable Hollywood star, set in a non-western society that came and swept the Oscars. I think there is a lot hope that … films like this with faces like these can translate globally and connect with an audience that doesn’t necessarily look like them. “

But Yu said HBO was considering that Ruffalo would star in his spin-off suggests that “maybe we’re not quite there yet.”

Adapting an Asian film, regardless of who the cast is, also has its challenges, said Yuen. Although there are universal themes, such as exploitation, there are culturally specific details, such as the ramen blend shown in “Parasite” which emphasized the class struggle. Spike Lee’s “Oldboy” version doesn’t necessarily translate these nuances, like the scene involving the live eating of an octopus.

As a result, these remakes weren’t as successful at the box office or reviews as the originals, with “Oldboy” being one of the biggest flops of 2013. The exception, Yuen said, is “The Departed” from 2006, probably because Martin Scorsese used the original 2002 gangster film “Infernal Affairs” as a starting point. For example, he set his characters much at home in South Boston as Irish Catholics, as opposed to the Hong Kong original as Buddhists.

The adaptations themselves are nothing new, showing at least an acknowledgment of the fact that the stories were good, such as Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film, “Seven Samurai”, which was remade in a western. The basic plot is about a group of geeks with special abilities gathering together and seems to have provided inspiration for everything from “A Bug’s Life” to “Oceans Eleven”. Another Kurosawa remake was 1961’s “Yojimbo” in 1964’s “A Fistful of Dollars”, with Clint Eastwood in his first starring role. It was later redone in “Last Man Standing” with Bruce Willis in 1996.

“But there was a real fear that his films wouldn’t translate,” said Stephen Gong, executive director of the Center for Asian American Media. “So they remade many of them as westerns. The “Seven Samurai” have become “The Magnificent Seven” … The westerns of the United States are quite interesting, but not as masterful as the original. “

But with “Parasite” director Bong at the helm of this HBO spin-off, Gong isn’t so worried, especially if Bong wants to further develop the story.

All in all, Asian representation in films is slowly improving.

The percentage of Asians’ lead roles in Hollywood has grown from 3.1% in 2016 to 5% in 2019, according to the University of California’s Los Angeles-based Hollywood Diversity Report. While Asians are still under-represented, the percentage is slowly increasing to their share of the United States population – 5.9 percent, according to the United States Census Bureau.

The tide is changing with films such as “Crazy Rich Asians” and “The Farewell”, as well as roles for Asian American actors in series where they are only Asians, such as Manny Jacinto in NBC’s “The Good Place” and Lana Condor in “To all the guys I’ve loved before” from Netflix.

On the contrary, the number of Asians in decision-making roles continues to lag behind: directors have reached 3.4 percent and writers 2.8 percent.

“There is an energy that you believe people want to hear more of these stories. People want to feel the richness of culture and also see what new possibilities these types of perspectives can open narratively,” said Yu. “Frankly, I see this as just the beginning. “

The same Hollywood studio also found that consistently in the past nine years, if the cast is more than 20 percent more varied for English-language films, it comes to the global box office. Looking at the demographics of the audience, this could be fueled by the minority audience, who purchased disproportionately most of the tickets for the most important films in 2019. This is evident with the pressures of social media such as the “gold open” , in which Asian Americans organized group screenings and bought tickets for strangers to see “Crazy Rich Asians” on the opening day.

“Diversity sells,” said Ana-Christina Ramón, study co-author and director of research and civic engagement at UCLA. “There’s a lot more enthusiasm for black people. And that’s where I think it’s not being exploited in terms of Asian and Latin representation on the screen and behind the scenes because the industry is probably leaving money on the table, you know, and they are taking them for granted. “

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