When South Korean director Bong Joon-ho accepted Parasite’s Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, he famously said, “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”
A year later, Hollywood has fallen short on acknowledging films that are not exclusively in English. Minari is one such film. In a move that can only be described as racist, it was barred from being nominated as a Golden Globe Best Picture because of an outdated rule requiring a Best Picture nomination to have “50% or more English dialogue.” The Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HPFA) pulled a similar move during the 2020 award season with Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, a Chinese-American story that resonated strongly with many Asian Americans. In an additional offense, Minari only received one Golden Globe nomination, snubbed in categories such as Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress where nominations had been expected. (Minari did, however, pick up three nominations from the Screen Actors Guild Awards, including a Best Ensemble nomination.)
An increasingly frustrating aspect about the single Foreign Language Film nomination is the history of other Best Picture nominees (and winners), notably Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and Alejandro Iñárritu’s Babel, both of which had less than 50% English dialogue. The Golden Globes’ decisions aren’t remotely logical, although they may follow a rulebook, considering race more than language. Although the official title is Best Foreign Language Film, it really just signifies foreign film, something that the average American audience shies away from. Would Minari have been nominated as Best Picture with a little more English? Why wasn’t last year’s Best Picture Drama win, British war film 1917 (directed by Brit Sam Mendes), considered a foreign film? Why does language decide what is foreign or not?
By all accounts, Minari is less “foreign” and more close to home than many films that have graced the award show over the years. Even on paper, it appears extremely American, with a slew of American actors (only two of the main cast, Han Ye-ri and Youn Yuh-jung, are non-American), an American director (Lee Isaac Chung), and American producers (including Brad Pitt). The story is set in Arkansas, and it’s hard to get more American than that, but it manages to do so.
Minari is a film about a Korean-American family who arrives in dusty Arkansas in the ‘80s with Jacob (the father, played by Steven Yeun), dreaming of an ambitious farm. It’s a classic American dream story on the outside, with familiar (but new to the screen) depictions of a foreign family settling into rural America. There are issues with crops and irrigation, interactions with white neighbors, the children’s struggle with embracing their Korean roots, and themes of struggle and perseverance. But the American dream framework is not what makes Minari so exclusively American.
The movie is rich with details so specific to the Korean-American experience that when I first saw it, I was experiencing something akin to discovery and euphoria. It was as if I was seeing my true self for the first time on the screen, and it filled a gap within me that I didn’t even know existed. Sandra Oh (Grey’s Anatomy, Killing Eve) said in a Q&A with the cast after a screening that she burst into tears when the grandmother (who came from Korea to take care of the kids, David and Anne) brought out the myulchi (stir-fried anchovy) and other Korean banchan she had managed to pack. It’s a scene I’ve seen in my own life: food from home hundreds of miles away, meaning more to me and my family than it could ever mean to the Koreans who live in Korea. Oh went on to talk about the difference between Korean and Korean-American films, of the heaviness that is lacking in Korean work by such directors as Bong Joon-ho. The Korean-American, and, more largely, immigrant experience in America is one that is diverse but united in deeper emotions: a longing for home and the undying ache of being away from it.
Minari is also filled with the interchanging, intermingling Korean and English dialogue that has been the soundtrack of my life. It’s a sound rarely heard in Korea, exclusive to Korean-American households and pockets of Korean life in the U.S. Sentences and words seamlessly flowing from English to Korean and Korean to English in the way that I speak, Korean voices forming English words with familiar accents. Bits and pieces of the dialogue seemed lifted straight out of my own life: the tone Jacob uses when he disciplines David, the things that David and Anne say to their grandmother, and even the way Jacob and his daughter argue. Hearing it all spoken so authentically in Minari, I heard the beauty of it for the first time in my life.
That language would be a barrier to a film’s Americanness is ridiculous.The various languages spoken across the country are a fundamental part of America. My experience as an American, shared by millions of other Korean-Americans, is the one portrayed (sometimes word for word in the half-Korean, half-English dialogue) in Minari.
In fact, there’s really no need to prove that Minari is American. It’s obvious to anyone who’s seen it that it is—that it couldn’t be labeled correctly as anything else. The Golden Globes decision was a slap in the face to those who made the film, who firmly believed they had created a work that portrayed their American reality. The snub unexpectedly defined some of the immigrant experience—wanting to be a part of a country that doesn’t want you, or, as Steven Yeun said of the Asian-American experience: “It’s like when you’re thinking about everybody else, but nobody else is thinking about you.”
The buzz that the HFPA decision generated was angry but short-lived. Brilliant works have been rejected so many times that the occurrence was nothing new—just another Hollywood institution being a Hollywood institution. It could have been, however, an opportunity to look at archaic ways of thinking and try to change them.
The Oscars and the Golden Globes continue to display and foster an American self-obsession. While the average film enthusiast might watch all the acclaimed foreign films of the year, it’s likely that the average American (who might watch the Golden Globes or Oscars) will not. Film buffs often immortalize the days when Fellini and Godard were watched regularly by American audiences in the theatre. Last year’s wide reception of such foreign films as Parasite and Portrait of a Lady on Fire were steps toward a similar and more exciting direction, prompting questions of whether or not a foreign film category should even exist.
If the rules are as flexible (Babel, Inglourious Basterds) or inflexible (The Farewell, Minari) as they have proven to be, why is a foreign film category even needed? Yes, the Golden Globes are meant to spotlight American work, and yes, Cannes and Venice exist, but what are the possibilities of large, mainstream American awards and recognition that disregard national, racial, cultural, and linguistic boundaries? Would more people be prompted to see films outside of their Hollywood/U.S./white bubble, and have their eyes opened to an America that is different from theirs?
Categorizing Minari as a foreign film was a conscious, ugly decision. It shows how much the cultural idea of American identity must progress to reflect reality—to acknowledge the stories, immigrants, and cultures that really make America what it is.
By Hannah Yang