Minari Is an American Film — Call It One
Immediately following the deadly attack on the Capitol last month, people ostensibly more optimistic than I am began echoing a familiar refrain: "this is not America," implying that this kind of violence and insurrection is "not who we are."
Whether or not that's true is debatable, but the instinct to define ourselves by what we're not is a natural one; the flip side, of course, being that we also have to define ourselves by what we are. There are multiple definitions of what it means to be an American, but they've congealed into the loose, flawed concept of the "American dream," the idea that anyone in this country has the opportunity to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and move up on the social and economic ladders solely through hard work and determination.
By that definition, Minari, a film that follows a family of South Korean immigrants who come to rural Arkansas to build a more prosperous life by growing their own farm, is distinctly American. But when it came time for awards season, the Golden Globes classified the acclaimed movie (made by an American director and filmed in America) in the foreign language film category, a decision that was widely criticized. Technically, because Korean is the predominant language spoken in the movie, it does qualify as a foreign language film even if Minari is listed as an American movie on the Globes nomination page. Still, as some argued, it was a puzzling call that implied that America is a country where people only speak English, which couldn't be further than the truth.
"I have not seen a more American film than #Minari this year," tweeted filmmaker Lulu Wang, who was in a similar situation when her movie The Farewell was deemed a foreign language film at the Globes last year. "It's a story about an immigrant family, IN America, pursuing the American dream. We really need to change these antiquated rules that characterize Americans as only English-speaking."
Minari director Lee Isaac Chung took the Globes' categorization in stride, diplomatically explaining to Vanity Fair that he doesn't want to "demonize" the Hollywood Foreign Press, who he sees as trying to award films and celebrate cinema. Still, Chung was empathetic to people who were hurt by the decision.
"I've been giving it a lot of thought, and I understand the pain that people feel in this whole thing," he told the outlet. "Because growing up as an Asian American and growing up as someone who is not white, oftentimes in this country you can feel as though you're a foreigner, or you're reminded of being a foreigner, even though you're not. Even though inside, internally, you feel completely American. This is home."
A source with the HFPA also told Vanity Fair that "any film with at least 50% of non-English dialogue goes into the foreign language category" instead of being eligible for one of the two best picture Globes. But as some have pointed out, 2009's Inglourious Basterds, which was mostly in German and French, did not meet the 50% English-language threshold, but was submitted and nominated as Best Motion Picture, Drama. 2006's Babel, which unfolds in English, Spanish, Arabic and Japanese, also did not meet the 50% English-language threshold, but was nominated for the same category at the Globes, and ended up winning the award. The major difference between these two films and Minari is that Minari doesn't have a majority-white cast.
A single categorization at one awards show in and of itself may not strip Asian-Americans of Americanness, but the message felt clear: it's a signal to know our place, our identities as "other" even if we were born and raised in the States. At a time when hate crimes against Asian Americans are on the rise yet go largely unreported by mainstream media, this reads less like a champagne problem and more like yet another example of the various insidious ways Asian Americans are told they don't belong — that our elders can be physically assaulted in broad daylight in spates and it won't even be a blip on the radar of the New York Times, or that our discrimination isn't considered a significant part of American education.
Yes, the HFPA's rules on language are a technicality — but that's the point. It's a technicality that keeps Asian Americans from being seen as Americans at all. It says that you can make an award-worthy movie, and technically still not be seen as being in the same category as your peers. Are we really only technically American? There are countless Americans who don't speak English at home, and yet they're still Americans. As Chung told Vanity Fair, "the categories that are there are not necessarily fitting to the reality of who we are as human beings." And isn't the goal of cinema — which French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard called "truth [at] 24 frames per second" — to represent who we really are as people?
Right now, these categories are set up in a way that says to Asian Americans, "your stories are not for us." But Minari isn't just a story for Asian Americans by Asian Americans, it's for everyone. Asian Americans and other minorities have grown up having been asked to see ourselves in white Hollywood's stories, and it's time we get the same treatment. Minari isn't solely an immigrant story, it's a story about the American experience.
"Sometimes I wonder if the Asian American experience is what it's like when you're thinking about everyone else, but nobody else is thinking about you," Minari star Steven Yeun reflected recently. For now, it is — but it doesn't have to be.