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How Hollywood turned an Asian American triumph into an insult

NBC News logo NBC News 3/3/2021 Nancy Wang Yuen
© Provided by NBC News

“I prayed, I prayed, I prayed!” squealed the young daughter of “Minari” director Lee Isaac Chung as he accepted the Golden Globe award Sunday night for best foreign language film. I too have prayed for Asian American films like “Minari” to receive all manner of major awards. But a best foreign language award was not what I had in mind. Like most Asian Americans, I have faced the perpetual foreigner stereotype all of my life. I frequently field questions of “where are you really from?” and I’ve been told to “go back to China.” So when “Minari” was nominated in the foreign language category and excluded from competing for best drama, Asian Americans let out a collective groan. And when it won, what should have been a moment of collective joy felt like the award equivalent to the backhanded 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 overcoming hardships in pursuit of the American dream. It is, obviously, an American story. The catch? Much of the dialogue was in Korean, which under Golden Globe rules disqualified it from the top categories. The official rules state that films must have “50% or more English dialogue” to contend for the best motion picture prizes in drama or musical/comedy. Films in any other language are therefore siloed.

Even though I grew up in California, there were scenes in “Minari” that resonated with my own life. Like the movie’s young son David, I also cringingly told my grandmother “you smell” when she came to visit us in the United States. When the Yi family visits a local church for the first time and a white boy turns around in the pews to stare at David in confusion, I had flashbacks to my entire childhood. To call “Minari” a “foreign language film” felt like a negation of my own American story and that of so many Americans from immigrant families.

As Lulu Wang, director of “The Farewell,” tweeted when nominations were announced in December: “I have not seen a more American film than #Minari this year. It's a story about an immigrant family, IN America, pursuing the American dream. We really need to change these antiquated rules that characterizes American as only English-speaking.” Wang’s excellent “The Farewell” — another film about an Asian American family — was also nominated the year before for a best foreign language Golden Globe award because of its majority-Mandarin dialogue.

Video: Watch: Actors call for inclusivity at Golden Globes (NBC News)


“The Farewell,” which starred New York-born actress (and non-native Mandarin speaker) Awkwafina, is just more evidence of why the Globes’ rule is both outdated and discriminatory. English is not even the official language of the United States (hint: there is none). In fact, 21.6 percent of Americans (ages 5 and older) speak a language other than English at home. Given that immigrants and their children make up more than 25 percent of the U.S. population, films like “Minari” and “The Farewell” should be recognized for what they are — American stories.

Another problem with the English dialogue rule is that it is inconsistently applied. In 2012, “The Artist,” a French silent film with no dialogue, was nominated for and won the Golden Globe award for best musical or comedy. Furthermore, foreign European films are regularly nominated for the top prizes. This year, “The Father,” a French-British co-production with a French director, was nominated for best drama. But “Minari” — a U.S. production, with a U.S. director — was barred from competing for the top prize. This makes no sense if the point is to divide “foreign” from “domestic.”

In a climate of heightened anti-Asian violence, labeling an Asian American film like “Minari” “foreign” feels even more offensive. Advocacy groups like “Stop Asian American Pacific Islander Hate” have received more than 2,800 reported incidents of racism and discrimination targeting Asian Americans across the United States. Asian Americans report physical assaults along with verbal harassment like “stop bringing that Chinese virus over here.” At the core of these attacks is a xenophobic perception of Asian Americans as foreign threats. While anti-Asian racism is not new, the recent uptick has been fueled by the government using words like “foreign virus” and “Chinese virus.” The World Health Organization has condemned the usage of such language and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials have criticized the phrases as “inaccurate and potentially harmful in promoting racist associations.” Consequently, the label of “foreign” (even if celebratory), is misleading at best and dangerous at worst.

The Golden Globes needs to be like the Academy Awards and allow films of any language to compete for best picture in either drama or comedy. In 2020, the South Korean film “Parasite” won the best picture Oscar, making history as the first non-English film to win the award. To go from celebrating the win of “Parasite” to a consolation prize for "Minari" feels bittersweet. (If “Minari” receives a best picture Oscar nomination this year, that would feel like redemption.)

Lee Isaac Chung’s acceptance speech drove home how “Minari” is not limited by any language. “‘Minari’ is about a family,” he explained. “It's a family trying to learn 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, and I'm trying to learn it myself and to pass it on, and I hope we'll all learn how to speak this language of love to each other, especially this year."

Hollywood needs to recognize that whatever language Asian Americans choose to speak is American, because we are Americans.


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