“Minari,” Language, and the Pain of Categorization

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Apparently, through a year and a pandemic, the Golden Globes organization has yet to understand that the language of a film’s dialogue is not what defines the film in its entirety. That films and art have their own universal lexicon is an ideal shattered by the Globes’ insistence on categorizing any film with languages other than English as ‘Foreign Language’ films. 

This categorization has received backlash from international directors and audiences alike, but this year also earned major criticism from American audiences for its categorization of the film Minari, particularly because of the insinuation of the word ‘foreign’ in the category title. 

As described by production studio A24, Minari is a “tender and sweeping story about …a Korean-American family that moves to an Arkansas farm in search of their own American Dream.”[1] The actors speak both English and Korean in the film, and all Korean dialogue is subtitled on-screen. However, the Globes decided to place this American-directed film, set in the middle of the United States and focused around the American Dream, within the Foreign Language film category.

The categorization appalled many Asian American actors, professionals, and audience members. Daniel Dae Kim tweeted that the nomination in the Foreign Language category, rather than the preeminent Best Drama, was the “film equivalent of being told to go back to your country when that country is actually America.”[2] 

In labeling the film with ‘foreign’ language, the Golden Globes perpetuates harmful stereotypes about language and culture in the US: that languages that are not English do not qualify as American. In reality, the United States has no official, federally recognized language—English or otherwise. 

The decision begs the question: why do we categorize films, and, further, visual art, in terms of linguistic communication? Whether a film is American can not solely be determined by the language of its dialogue. Therefore, how can we determine what an American film, versus a ‘foreign’ film, is? 

In short: we can not. And further: it should not matter. 

In our day and age, closed captioning services and subtitles are universally used to translate films into many languages, particularly English. For decades, American films have been enjoyed around the world with subtitles; it seems only English-speaking Americans are hesitant to watch a film that uses them, or enjoy films from around the world. In a market where American films are widely exported, there is little reciprocity by American audiences to watch films from outside the States. As far as award shows, the rest of the world is expected to fit in one category of ‘Foreign Films’, as though the sole characteristic of lacking English dialogue makes those films similar enough to compete with each other.  

What makes an ‘American’ film versus a ‘foreign’ film paints those who speak and create in languages other than English in one broad and generalizing stroke, when every film exhibits an individual film team’s vision. Whether or not that vision is influenced by their culture entirely depends on the film, and also implies that a nation and its people share a unitary culture–another broad stroke that attempts to hide the beautiful complexities of art and individuals. 

Other categories of awards are expected: different genres, different roles in the production team, all of these make sense for films, because how can you compare the work of the cinematographer to the work of the lead actor? But the category of ‘Foreign Language’ is a practice in othering that attempts to reify American films, only so long as they are in English (as made evident by the controversy with Minari). 

This othering is exactly the kind of hatred Asian Americans have been made to face in the US at the hands of largely white structures and institutions. In every venue, particularly one as influential as Hollywood, it is crucial to decry these exclusionary categories and labels. ‘American’ is not synonymous with ‘English-speaking’; Minari is just as American as any other film nominated by the Globes this year.

On February 28, Minari won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film. Director Lee Isaac Chung echoed similar sentiments to Bong JoonHo, the director of Parasite, which won in the same category the previous year[3]. Here, Chung called viewers to look past language and see the wonder of cinema; to use films as a language of their own that introduces us to heartwarming stories: 

Minari… 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. I hope we all learn how to speak this language of love to each other, especially this year.”[4]


Note: Minari has been nominated for the Best Picture Oscar by the Academy, one of six nominations for the film including Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Original Score.


References 

[1] “A24’s Minari.” A24. 2021. https://a24films.com/films/minari 

[2] Kim, Daniel Dae. “Daniel Dae Kim on Twitter.” December 23, 2020. https://twitter.com/danieldaekim/status/1341685158131331073?lang=en 

[3] Bong, JoonHo. “‘Parasite’: Best Motion Picture, Foreign Language.’” NBC on Youtube. January 5, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mX3obZ0lXoU

[4]  Lee, Isaac Chung. Yang, Rachel. “‘Minari’ wins Best Foreign Language Film at Golden Globes after category controversy.” Entertainment Weekly. February 28, 2021. https://ew.com/awards/golden-globes/minari-wins-best-foreign-language-film-golden-globes-controversy/

Author

samantha.larkin@yale.edu