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“A language of the heart”: Why the “best foreign-language” category is deeply problematic

When director Lee Isaac Chung accepted the Golden Globe for best foreign-language film, he said, “Minari is about a family. It’s a family trying to learn how to speak a language of its own. It goes deeper than any American language and any foreign language; it’s a language of the heart.”

It was a nod to the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) and their decision to identify the American film in a foreign-language category. A decision that confused many critics and moviegoers, especially when the award show itself identified the film as American.

Chung, who also wrote the film’s screenplay, was born in Denver, Colorado. The film was produced by American production companies A24 and Plan B Entertainment. The film was also shot entirely in Tulsa, Oklahoma and set in the Arkansas Ozarks. Perhaps most importantly, the film is a semi-autobiographical piece on Chung’s upbringing, being the son of Korean immigrants who moved to rural Arkansas on his father’s dream to farm Korean crops.

Since its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2020, the film has been receiving critical acclaim, with many critics calling the film a Best Picture Oscar-contender. So, why is an American film about a Korean family living in America only being identified as a contender for best foreign-language film? For the HFPA, the film was not American-enough.

The HFPA defended their decision to classify Minari as a foreign-language film because its dialogue was 95% spoken in Korean. According to the HFPA’s eligibility rules, if a film’s dialogue is over 50% non-English, it is automatically considered in this category. Further, A24 said the current rule gave the production company no choice but to qualify their film as “foreign-language.” However, this rule has not always been followed. In 2006, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film Babel was recognized within the Golden Globe’s best drama category despite having only 35% of its dialogue spoken in English. Similarly, in 2010 Quentin Tarantino’s film, Inglourious Basterds, was recognized in the same category, with 70% of its dialogue spoken in German and French.

The foreign-language categories for many award shows have always been shrouded in controversy. The Oscars, which changed the name of their category to “Best International Film,” requires countries to choose only one film to represent them during award season. That being said, the Oscars still allow international film contenders to be nominated for best picture. The Golden Globes don’t. Excluding films from best picture solely because they don’t have at least 50% English dialogue is excluding diversity. Unfortunately, some of the most underrepresented films in Hollywood are Asian films.

Just last year, Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, a film about a Chinese-American family that returns to China to say goodbye to their terminally-ill matriarch, was almost entirely ignored during award season despite receiving critical acclaim. As you could probably guess, the film was recognized in the best foreign-language film category at the Golden Globes.

The problem with the Golden Globes and the HFPA isn’t that they are considering these films in the foreign-language category. Chung has even expressed he was happy his film was considered for any award. The problem is that these films are being recognized only for the language the characters speak, not the stories they tell.

In an interview with CNN, sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen spoke on the Minari nomination controversy, explaining the HFPA’s decision reminded her of the blind assumption that if you are Asian, you can’t possibly be from North America. It’s a sad antiquated perception of Asian-Americans and Asian-Canadians, and it is to say that there can only be one or the other. At a time when anti-Asian racism and hate crimes are at an all-time high in North America, Asian-American experiences need to be shared more than ever.

Minari isn’t about a family learning to be American. It’s about a family learning how to exist in the liminal space of being both Korean and American. In the film’s beginning, Steven Yeun’s character, Jacob, praises the Arkansas soil as the perfect texture for growing Korean vegetables. 9-year-old Alan S. Kim’s character, David, learns in the film’s finale that it’s okay to share Korean traditions with his friends while teaching his grandmother about America. Minari teaches its audiences that languages don’t define where you come from, and they certainly don’t measure your ability to be American. Hopefully, the HFPA will begin to realize this is an outdated belief, but first, let’s hope they realize that “foreign-language” is not a genre.

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