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What the controversy over ‘Minari’ says about being American

Monica Yi stares at a rickety trailer in the middle of an empty field in rural Arkansas. “What is this place?” the stunned wife asks her husband.

Jacob Yi replies without hesitation: “Our home.”

It’s the opening scene of “Minari.” These words, like many lines in the movie, are spoken in Korean. Jacob and Monica are immigrants, and like more than 20% of the US population, they don’t speak much English at home.

So when the Golden Globes aired Sunday, this American movie written and directed by an American man about a family’s struggles on their American farm competed — and won — in a surprising category: best foreign-language film.

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s rules made it ineligible for best picture. That sparked controversy and serious questions about racism in Hollywood. And with the movie’s recent release for rental on streaming services, the conversation is far from over.

“It feels personal. … It feels like the ‘where are you from?’ question that Asian Americans always get,” says Nancy Wang Yuen, a sociologist and author of “Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism.” “The assumption is that if you have an Asian face, you must not be from here.”

‘Minari’ is an American story in more ways than one

Lee Isaac Chung, the Colorado-born writer and director of “Minari,” says he based many details in the script on his own experiences growing up as the child of Korean immigrants on a farm in Arkansas.

The movie gets its title from the Korean name for a resilient herb. But there’s no doubt that the vivid, richly textured scenes of the film tell a decidedly American tale — from pastoral Ozark landscapes to country church pews to the Yi family’s home.

“Minari” swept top prizes at Sundance last year. It’s also winning rave reviews from people whose communities it depicts — immigrants and non-immigrants alike. An Arkansas Times journalist recently called it “the most authentic coming-of-age story I’ve seen reflected on screen about our part of the world.”

Chung says he credits Pulitzer-winning novelist Willa Cather — who chronicled life on the American Plains more than a century ago — for inspiring him to tell it.

About her books “O Pioneers!” and “My Antonia,” Cather once said she had written stories inspired by her own upbringing after years of imitating cosmopolitan authors in New York.

“She wrote that her work really took off when she stopped admiring and she started remembering,” Chung told CNN. “And that’s what got me to sit down finally and just write out my memories. And that became the kernel of a film.”

Why the film’s Golden Globe nomination struck a nerve

The memories Chung weaves together in “Minari” are something many Americans who grew up in immigrant families can relate to: The joy of a visiting family member bringing spices from home, the struggles of different generations to connect, the pent-up emotions of parents risking everything to support their family, the faces of children who are trying to fit in.

To Yuen, it feels momentous.

“A lot of us are seeing our stories on screen for the first time,” she says.

So when news first broke that the Golden Globes’ eligibility rules would force “Minari” to compete in the “best foreign-language film” category, it stung.

Actor Daniel Dae Kim and other Asian celebrities swiftly took to social media to share their dismay. Kim described it as “the film equivalent of being told to go back to your country when that country is actually America.”

For some, it was déjà vu to the previous year, when Lulu Wang’s 2019 film “The Farewell” was shut out of the award ceremony’s best comedy race because much of the movie was in Mandarin Chinese.

“It’s great these films are being made, but it’s terrible that they’re being put in the foreign language categories,” Yuen says. “We shouldn’t be punished for telling different American stories that haven’t been told before.”

And it’s particularly troubling, Yuen says, at a time when Asian Americans are increasingly facing verbal and physical attacks.

“When you call ‘Minari’ a foreign film, it doesn’t help the kind of general anti-Asian sentiment, the perpetual foreigner stereotype that Asian Americans are dealing with, not just in an abstract representational way, but in a lived experience, under attack by our government and individuals.”

What the awards’ rules say

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s rules for the Golden Globes state that only films with 50% or more of their dialog in English are eligible to compete in the awards’ best motion picture categories.

Other awards use different criteria. The Oscars, for example, allow films in any language to compete for best picture. And last year “Parasite,” a Korean-language film set in Seoul, became the first non-English film to win the award.

The Golden Globes’ rules aren’t new. But some are arguing it’s long past time for the association to reevaluate the criteria it uses for its prestigious prizes.

Charlene Jimenez, director of entertainment partnerships and advocacy for the nonprofit Define American, described this year’s Golden Globes nominations as part of a “pattern of erasure” as she recently called for a review of the language requirement.

“More than 350 languages are spoken in American homes today. So what does ‘foreign’ language mean?” Jimenez told CNN. “It’s a really important time for us as an American society to be investigating our own prejudice about films like this, about stories like this, about immigrant stories — what does and does not resonate as ‘American’ to people.”

The United States has no official language. And more than 20% of the US population age 5 and over speaks a language other than English at home, according to census data.

If the Golden Globes’ rules don’t change with the times, there could be consequences beyond the big screen, says William Yu, a screenwriter and activist who’s been a vocal critic of whitewashing in Hollywood.

“It has industry-shifting implications over who gets acknowledged and who doesn’t,” he says. “It can have an outsized impact on the trajectory of their career.”

And important stories could go unrecognized — and unseen.

“The HFPA probably is erasing a good chunk of immigrant stories that are going to come from communities that are marginalized. As these communities mature and look to tell their own stories, it’s not always going to be in English,” he says. “And to be told that if your movie isn’t 50% in English in order to be considered for best picture, then you will never be enough — there’s a certain kind of implied inferiority when you can be considered for best foreign language film but not the best film.”

The director feared he’d have to make ‘Minari’ in English

For his part, the writer and director of “Minari” says he doesn’t feel that competing in the foreign-language film category dishonors the film or his work. But Chung says he understands the frustrations many have expressed.

“I feel really torn about everything that’s happened. It’s just the rules that they have in that category,” he says. “These conversations are good. … We’re starting to see that being an American, being someone in this country — the picture of that is more complex than we might often assume. And I feel like films need to reflect that. Rules and institutions should reflect that. And it’s good that we can have this conversation.”

When Chung thinks about language and his film, though, something else comes to mind.

“My grandmother, if she were still alive, she’d be very proud,” he says, “that I held through and did a film in Korean and didn’t compromise and then start using that foreign language of English.”

Long before this controversy started brewing, Chung knew he’d need to find funding to make “Minari” — and he was worried.

He wanted to tell the story in Korean. But he feared that would be a tough sell — not for audiences, who he knew would connect with a good story when they saw one — but for would-be backers.

So he also wrote a version of the script with more English in it, just in case.

Luckily, Chung says, producer Christina Oh, who’s also Korean American, supported his vision.

“She was very adamant from the start that we have to do this in Korean, the way that we grew up. … She said as a producer, she’s going to go out and make that case, and make that fight.”

That meant Chung was able to show the world a story that reflects the way so many American families live.

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