Column: ‘Minari’ is not foreign. It’s as American as it gets


Photo by David Bornfriend, Courtesy of A24

“Minari” debuted January 2020 at the Sundance Film Festival, winning the U.S. Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic and Audience Award: U.S. Dramatic. (L-R) Alan S. Kim, Steven Yeun, Noel Cho, Yeri Han

Natalie Duerr, news staff

Last week, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, or HFPA, released this year’s Golden Globe nominees. Films such as “Mank,” “Promising Young Woman” and “Nomadland” found themselves up for one of the top prizes of the night, Best Picture – Drama. 

One of this year’s most talked-about films was absent from those categories, though. “Minari,” a film made by an American filmmaker, set in America, with an American lead actor and produced by an American production company, was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film instead. A nomination in the foreign language category makes it ineligible for the other Best Picture categories of Drama and Musical/Comedy. Not only was it locked out of the Best Picture categories, but the HFPA did not recognize the incredibly emotive yet subtle performances by Steven Yeun and Youn Yuh-jung in the Best Actor and Actress categories. 

This semi-autobiographical tale written by Lee Isaac Chung is just as American as Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie,” but isn’t being treated as such because it is in a different language. The film follows a Korean-American family as they try to find their piece of the American dream in Arkansas by starting a farm. 

 The Golden Globe Awards states a foreign language film “must be at least 51% non-English” to qualify. However, films such as Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” have still been nominated for Best Picture – Drama with dialogue mainly in French and German. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2006 film Babel even won Best Picture – Drama with less than 50% English dialogue. Both films feature recognizable white actors like Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Christoph Waltz.

Just last year, a similar outcry happened over Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell,” another specifically American story – it follows a young woman reconnecting with her grandmother and family in China. Still, the HFPA disqualified it from the Best Picture categories and instead nominated it for Best Foreign Language Film since it was mostly in Chinese. 

These aren’t the first instances of an American-produced film being nominated in the category either. Other American-produced films, such as “Letters from Iwo Jima,” “Apocalypto,” “The Kite Runner” and “In the Land of Blood and Honey” have faced a similar fate. However, there is a clear distinction between those films and “The Farewell” and “Minari” – Wang and Chung’s films are about the American experience. 

 Even the Academy Awards acknowledged that using the word foreign and only basing that distinction on language is wrong, saying that the word foreign is “outdated within the global filmmaking community.” They have since changed the Best Foreign Language Film category to Best International Feature Film at the Oscars and allowed films to be nominated for both the International and Best Picture categories. 

Filmmakers and critics like Lulu Wang flocked to Twitter to voice their opinion on “Minari” being relegated to Best Foreign Language Film and the actors being snubbed for their performances. 

“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,” she wrote in a tweet Dec. 22, 2020. “We really need to change these antiquated rules that characterize American as only English-speaking.”

Film critic Ahmad also shared his dismay on Twitter. 

“Steven Yeun delivered one of the best performances of the year for me. A masterclass in subtle, nuanced acting, he was able to say with his eyes and his physicality what his emotionally stunted character wasn’t able to put into words,” he wrote in a tweet Feb. 3. “This snub is painful.”

Fortunately, while the Golden Globes may have forgotten about “Minari,” the Screen Actors Guild Awards gave the film justice, nominating the performances for Cast in a Motion Picture, Male Actor in a Leading Role in a Motion Picture (Steven Yeun) and Female Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture (Youn Yuh-Jung). Steven Yeun tweeted “grateful for this.” after the Screen Actors Guild shared their nominations.

“Minari” debuted January 2020 at the Sundance Film Festival, winning the U.S. Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic and Audience Award: U.S. Dramatic. The film opens in theatres Feb. 12 and on-demand Feb. 26. A24 will be hosting digital screenings with an exclusive cast and crew Q&A starting Feb. 12. The 78th Golden Globe Awards air Sunday, Feb. 28, on NBC. See the full list of Golden Globe nominees.