There is a film that was financed and distributed by American companies. It was shot and set in America. It was written and directed by an American filmmaker and it tells the story of a family’s pursuit of a distinctly American Dream. But apparently, allegedly, it’s not American.
That is, according to this year’s nomination submissions for the Golden Globes which categorise Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari as a foreign language film. This means that despite winning both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at Sundance (besides some 26 other accolades it has already received), it will not be considered for the Best Picture Award.
Current stipulation is that a film must have at least fifty percent of its dialogue in English to be considered for the Globes’ most significant prize. Although Minari does not meet this criterion it would not be the first time that the Globes had relaxed its rules were they to make an exception.
Iñárritu’s Babel (2006) and Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009) were both considered for the award, though the former includes scenes in four different languages, and the latter is predominantly in French and German. Seemingly, then, the Globes is a flexible institution that adapts itself to recognise true artistic merit.
The reality is a whole different story
Questions must be raised as to why such an emphasis is placed on segregating films by the language of their dialogue in the first place. Film was born as a silent art form with nearly forty years between the first film, Roundhay Garden Scene (1888), and the first talkie, The Jazz Singer (1927). Given that the language of images, not speech, beguiled audiences for such an extended period of time, surely dialogue should be viewed as an additive, not primordial, feature of film.
The very labelling of films as “foreign” is also dubious. For the Golden Globes, it appears an excuse to restrictively homogenise non-English-language, and therefore frequently non-Western film productions. If an American or European film happens to be included, however, it can be plucked from the abyss on a conveniently as-and-when basis. The colonial undertones are not unnoticeable.
One only has to look to Hollywood’s history of East Asian representation to comprehend further why allowances are not being made for Minari. It is markedly problematic; blighted by examples of yellowface and negative stereotyping such as Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of Holly Golightly’s Japanese neighbour, Mr. Yunioshi, in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Sean Connery’s Bond “disguise” as a Japanese man in You Only Live Twice (1967), and any one of the four dozen Mr Chan films that starred white actors in the titular role.
Where actors of East Asian descent were appropriately cast, their roles were most often designed to provide alleged comic relief to their audiences. Gedde Watanabe’s performance in Sixteen Candles (1984) as the exchange student Long Duk Dong is a notably excruciating case. In short, East Asian identity only ever appeared under the scrutiny of of a white, Eurocentric lens.
These discriminatory practises continue to the present day. Though overt yellowface has become less frequent, whitewashing remains far from rare. The casting of Emma Stone as a character of Chinese descent in Aloha (2015), Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One in Doctor Strange (2016), and Scarlett Johansson as a Japanese manga character in Ghosts in the Shell (2017) are just a few of many instances in which parts written for East Asian actors have been usurped by white performers. Now, Hollywood’s message is that instead of portraying East Asian people in an intentionally negative light, they would rather not include them at all.
This awards season is unfortunately symbolic
Such an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude of discrimination should not, and cannot, be considered an appropriate strategy any longer. Films such as Crazy Rich Asians (2018), The Farewell (2019), and Parasite (2019) have dispelled myths that films by East Asian talent lack value to the American markets through their commercial and critical success.
At a time when American identity is so starkly fragmented surely a narrative such as Minari’s, one that celebrates and reflects inherently American values, should be welcomed. Its treatment this awards season is unfortunately symbolic: it reflects the historic discrimination against East Asians in the film industry. Perhaps Minari will be the film that catalyses the emergence of a new Hollywood – one that champions and celebrates authentic and diverse voices in film. Or is that just another un-American dream?
Image by Gage Skidmore via Flickr