How Hollywood turned an Asian American triumph into an insult
"I've prayed, I've prayed, I've prayed!" the young daughter of "Minari" director Lee Isaac Chung squeaked as he accepted the Golden Globe Award for the best foreign language film on Sunday evening. I too have prayed for Asian American films like Minari to get all sorts of major awards. But an award for the best foreign language was not what I had in mind. Like most Asian Americans, I've faced the eternal stereotype of a foreigner my entire life. I often ask questions about "Where are you really from?" and I was told to "go back to China". When “Minari” was nominated in the foreign languages category and excluded from the competition for the best drama, the Asian Americans groaned collectively. And when it won, a moment of collective glee felt like an award that matches the backhand compliment: "Your English is so good!"
"Minari" is a beautiful film, written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, based on his own upbringing on a farm in rural Arkansas. The film shows a Korean-American family who overcome difficulties in order to realize the American dream. It is obviously an American story. The catch? Much of the dialogue was in Korean, which excluded it from the top categories under the Golden Globe rules. The official rules state that films must have "50% or more English dialogue" in order to compete for the best film awards in drama or musical / comedy. Films in any other language are therefore isolated.
Although I grew up in California, there were scenes in "Minari" that were in keeping with my own life. Like the young son in the film, David, I also told my grandmother that she smelled when she visited us in the United States. When the Yi family first attended a local church and a white boy turned in the pews to stare at David in confusion, I had flashbacks from my entire childhood. Calling "Minari" a "foreign language film" felt like a negation of my own American history and that of many Americans from immigrant families.
When nominations were announced in December, Lulu Wang, director of The Farewell, tweeted, “I haven't seen a more American movie than #Minari this year. It is a story about an immigrant family in America who are pursuing the American dream. We really need to change these outdated rules that characterize Americans as English-speaking only. Wang's excellent "The Farewell" - another film about an Asian-American family - was nominated for the best foreign-language Golden Globe Award the year before because of its mostly Mandarin dialogue.
"The Farewell," starring New York-born actress (and non-Mandarin native) Awkwafina, is just one more piece of evidence why the Rule of Globes is both obsolete and discriminatory. English isn't even the official language of the United States (note: there aren't any). In fact, 21.6 percent of Americans (ages 5+) speak a language other than English at home. Given that immigrants and their children make up more than 25 percent of the US population, films like "Minari" and "The Farewell" should be recognized for what they are - American stories.
Another problem with the English dialog rule is that it is applied inconsistently. In 2012 “The Artist”, a French silent film without dialogue, was nominated and received the Golden Globe Award for the best musical or the best comedy. In addition, foreign European films are regularly nominated for the main prizes. That year "The Father", a Franco-British co-production with a French director, was nominated for best drama. But “Minari” - a US production with a US director - was not allowed to fight for the main prize. This makes no sense when it comes to separating "foreign" from "domestic".
In a climate of heightened anti-Asian violence, it feels even more offensive to label an Asian-American film like “Minari” as “foreign”. Stakeholders such as Stop Asian American Pacific Islander Hate have received more than 2,800 reported incidents of racism and discrimination against Asian Americans in the United States. Asian Americans report physical assault and verbal harassment such as "stop bringing the Chinese virus here". At the center of these attacks is the xenophobic perception of Asian Americans as a foreign threat. While anti-Asian racism is not new, the recent surge has been fueled by the government with words like "foreign virus" and "Chinese virus". The World Health Organization has condemned the use of the language and officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention criticized the terms as "imprecise and potentially harmful in promoting racist groups". Consequently, the term “foreign” (even if it is solemn) is misleading at best and dangerous at worst.
The Golden Globes have to be like the Oscars, allowing films of any language to compete for the best picture in drama or comedy. In 2020, the South Korean film "Parasite" won the Oscar for best picture and made history as the first non-English film to win the award. Going from celebrating the victory of "Parasite" to a consolation prize for "Minari" feels bittersweet. (If "Minari" got an Oscar nomination for best picture this year, it would feel like a relief.)
Lee Isaac Chung's acceptance speech brought home that "Minari" is not restricted by any language. "'Minari' is about a family," he explained. “It's a family trying to learn to speak a language of their own. It goes deeper than any American or foreign language. It is a language of the heart and I am trying to learn and pass it on myself and I hope we will all learn how to speak this language of love with one another, especially this year. "
Hollywood needs to recognize that every language Asian Americans speak is American because we are Americans.
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Lee Isaac Chung
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