The Golden Globes’ foreign language category isn’t working

Still shot from Minari
A24/Courtesy

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In a country with no official language, how can any be called “foreign?” When a person speaks a “foreign” language, does this then also make their stories foreign, other?

These are the questions that the 2021 Golden Globes nominations fail to consider with its categorization of “Minari,” written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung. The film, which follows a family of Korean immigrants who start a farm in Arkansas, is made by and about Americans, but it was nominated in the foreign language category because over 50% of the dialogue is in Korean. According to the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s rules, a film cannot be considered for both best foreign language film and best picture.

But despite the Golden Globes’ ineffective eligibility requirements, the 2020 Sundance Grand Jury winner is, at its heart, an American film. “Minari” is magic, the sort of subtle storytelling that quietly immerses audiences and leaves them ruminating in its world long after the credits roll. Whether or not it should win the best drama award is a matter of opinion — but it certainly deserves to be considered.

It makes sense that a film cannot be both the best musical or comedy and also the best drama. It does not make any logical sense, however, that the best film in a foreign language cannot compete for these awards. While A24 submitted “Minari” into the foreign language category instead of submitting an appeal, this does not mean the rule is any more legitimate. One might argue that rules are rules, and that if Minari wanted to be categorized in the best picture category, then Chung should have moved forward with an English script. But why should the creative vision and authenticity of art be altered to conform to such an arbitrary ruling?

This is not the first time the gray area in the foreign language category has caused controversy. Just last year, Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” was also forced to compete in the foreign language category because it was primarily in Mandarin — even though this was a film written and directed by an Asian American woman, about an Asian American woman and was produced and distributed by an American company.

For an awards season that finds itself in a historical moment of a pandemic that has completely changed the entertainment industry, for an awards season that can stretch its boundaries to allow a taped performance of a Broadway musical that premiered over five years ago to result in a best picture nomination — why is the imagination so limited when it comes to the topic of language?

The complications of international and foreign language films are not unique to the Golden Globes. While the Academy Awards’ newly-named international film category excludes movies with American production companies and allows these films to also compete for best picture, issues regarding language still plague the category. “Lionheart,” a 2018 Nigerian film, was disqualified from competing in the international film category in the Oscars because it was predominantly in the English language. But Nigeria’s official language is English, while the United States has no official language at all. Clearly, the way awards shows are defining these categories is not working.

It is also surprising that, despite its disqualification from the best picture category, “Minari” was deemed eligible for all other categories, yet none of the actors were nominated for awards even with the attention and praise that Steven Yeun and Youn Yuh-jung have garnered. There is a pattern of actors whose performances are not in English getting snubbed. In 2020, Bong Joon-Ho’s “Parasite” won both best international film and best picture at the Academy Awards. The actors, however, were completely ignored. “Parasite” was declared the best film of the year, so why — especially in a year when the acting nominees drew criticism for being overwhelmingly white — was the acting, an unavoidably large part of its successful storytelling, overlooked?

Every time awards season rolls around, the same discourse seems to come up. And a similar consolation arises: “awards don’t matter anyway.” But to say awards don’t matter when certain stories and certain groups are routinely excluded, miscategorized and overlooked comes from a place of privilege. When Awkwafina became the first Asian American woman to win best actress for “The Farewell” at the Golden Globes last year, that mattered. It definitively mattered. So it also matters when the rules for awards shows are unjust, when they limit the imagination instead of expanding it.

Accepting his Golden Globe last year, Bong Joon-Ho said, “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to such amazing films.” Unfortunately, the barrier might be more than just an inch, more than just a matter of captioning. There is the barrier of the collective limited imagination, the need to categorize the other and the fact that English is quietly erasing minority languages. “Minari” is not the first movie to be thrown into this limbo. But if the outdated rules are changed, it will hopefully be the last.

Contact Sarena Kuhn at [email protected].