So when the Golden Globes air on Sunday, this American movie written and directed by an American man about a family’s struggles on their American farm will be competing in a surprising category: best foreign-language film.
‘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.
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.
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.”
What the awards’ rules say
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.
“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.”
“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 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.