Last year, Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” was one of the best American films of 2019: an emotionally devastating story masterfully told by an American filmmaker with a unique and distinctive voice, and featuring a standout performance by an American star (Awkwafina, who for her performance became the first Asian American to win the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Motion Picture — Musical or Comedy). And yet, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which awards the Golden Globes, deemed it a “foreign language movie” because the majority of its dialogue is in Chinese.
This year, Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari” (in limited release now and available more widely in February) is one of the best American films of 2020: an emotionally devastating story masterfully told by an American filmmaker with a unique and distinctive voice, and featuring a standout performance by an American star (Steven Yeun).
And, as Variety reported Tuesday night, it will also compete as a “foreign language movie” at the Golden Globes because the majority of its dialogue is in Korean.
The mysterious and idiosyncratic members of the HFPA frequently make some head-scratching choices (see: Golden Globe nominee “The Tourist”), and are more known for putting on a glitzy, glamorous and Champagne-filled show rather than for being accurate awards season prognosticators. But this is more than an awards season kerfuffle. Deeming Asian American stories as “foreign” reinforces longstanding racist and xenophobic tropes about Asian Americans as “perpetual foreigners” and “not American enough.”
They are the same kind of harmful perceptions that lead to strangers “complimenting” my English and asking where I’m really from, even though I was born and raised here. And they are the same kind of harmful perceptions that have fueled the wave of racism against Asian Americans this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Calling “Minari” a “foreign” film is also just absurd on its face. Inspired by Chung’s childhood, it’s about a Korean American family in rural Arkansas, grappling with what it means to be American. Yeun’s character, Jacob, comes to America with a grand and overly idealized version of the American Dream, aspiring to own a vast plot of land and start his own farm. But, like so many immigrants, he is forced to reconcile his dreams with reality: the reality of survival.
It’s not a Korean story or an Asian story: it’s a Korean American and Asian American story.
“The Farewell” is about a Chinese American woman visiting her extended family in China. The family conflict at the center of the film brings up larger questions about identity and feeling caught at the intersection of two cultures.
Unless they’ve been an immigrant or have spent a considerable amount of time living outside of their home countries, most Asian people living in Asia likely would not relate to these films so deeply, and certainly not in the way of many Asian Americans who see ourselves reflected in these stories.
In addition, many Americans speak multiple languages in their everyday lives and/or don’t speak English as their primary language. At the very least, “we really need to change these antiquated rules that characterize American as only English-speaking,” Wang noted Tuesday night.
For what it’s worth, the Golden Globes have particularly unusual rules for movies in which the majority of the dialogue is not in English. At the Oscars, movies that are not in English are submitted by the country in which they were produced, so movies produced in America would not compete in the category formerly known as Best Foreign Language Film. Last year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which administers the Oscars, renamed the category to something more inclusive: Best International Feature Film.
Like so many problems in Hollywood and in society at large, this isn’t just a matter of changing a name or a policy. It’s about shifting entire institutions and mindsets, and so much of that comes down to having more representation. In this case, what’s needed is more kinds of films made by more kinds of people who understand that there are so many kinds of American stories. And these stories should be treated as such, rather than shunted into some dubious categorization.