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Fiona Tan: Why can’t Asians make it in Hollywood?

Written by Fiona Tan
Edited by Bhromor Rahman

For its 78th award ceremony, the Golden Globes has decided to exclude Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, one of 2020’s most acclaimed films, from the Best Picture race. They instead placed the movie in the Foreign Language Film category despite it being produced and first released in the United-States. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) defended their choice by explaining that Minari cannot be considered for Best Picture due to the primarily Korean dialogue as per their eligibility rules stating that a movie with less than 50% of english dialogue is automatically unqualified for a nomination in any of the Best Picture categories (essentially, any of the top prizes). Lulu Wang’s the Farewell, another movie distributed by A24, also faced the same situation during the previous award ceremony. 

Minari’s unjust classification is a slap in the face of all non-english speaking Americans. English is not the official language in the U.S and it never has been. That’s right, the US never has had an official language at the Federal level unlike Canada for example. There is no justifiable reason as to why the HFPA enforced this linguistic rule when there are 350 languages spoken in the U.S. They simply dictated that because the film has a mostly Asian cast and Korean dialogue rather than English, they are filthy foreigners undeserving of recognition.   

It has been pointed out by many that Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds was not treated the same way as Minari and the Farewell even though English was roughly only 30% of the dialogue over the German, French and Italian, which comprised about 70%. Additionally, Babel, a 2006 drama starring Brad Pitt, actually won the Golden Globes Best Drama film award, despite not respecting the 50% english rule as well. One could easily point out the disparity between these two films and Minari, which is that Inglorious Basterds and Babel consist of predominantly white A-list actors.

Completely outraged by this decision, the public audience and prominent figures in the movie industry spoke up:

“The film equivalent of being told to go back to your country when that country is actually America.” -actor Daniel Dae Kim

 “Please change your name to ‘Golden Only For English Speaking People,’ because that would be more accurate,”  “#Minari is an American movie about a Korean American family in Arkansas. Why does a best picture have to be in English? Globe is in your name. Get it?” -Congressman Ted Lieu of California

Let’s set the records straight. There is no question that Minari is an American movie. It is played by Korean-American actors, produced by two American companies (A24 and Plan B), and was entirely shot in Oklahoma. The story is about a Korean immigrant family adjusting to the American farm life in 1980s Arkansas in hopes to achieve “the American dream”. How much more AMERICAN can you get?

Minari cast: Steven Yeun, Will Patton,Alan Kim, Han Ye-ri, Noel Kate Cho and Youn Yuh-jung

The HFPA makes the rules and they are in the position to change them at a whim, yet they haven’t, not even when the same issue happened last year with the Farewell, which is also produced by the same production company as Minari, A24. The underlying truth here is that because the movie does not “look” american, they deemed it foreign, when it is not.

This is just one of many examples of how Hollywood shuts out Asians. In fact, there is a history of Asians being mocked and stereotyped in Hollywood in addition to being neglected and ostracized. A prime example is the infamous ‘‘yellowface’’ with Mr. Yunioshi, the 1961 classic Breakfast at Tiffany’s, played by Mickey Rooney, who is dressed up as a caricaturesque slant-eyed japanese man who lives in the same apartment building as Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Goligthy. Just noting that this was only two decades removed from the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII.

I saw this movie when I was thirteen years old, and the shame and humiliation I felt seeing my culture being mocked in this way was upsetting. It’s terrible to think that, not so long ago, people who look like me were seen as a joke in the public eye, and we still are to some extent. Even in modern times, whitewashing recognizably popular asian characters is common.

With Scarlett Johanssen as Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in a Shell (2017), Tilda Swinton as a Tibetan monk in Doctor Strange (2016), and almost the entire cast of the live-action movie of Avatar: the Last Airbender (2010), the latter not even being a good movie, all provoking strong critical responses for their blatant whitewashing. It is baffling to see these movie producers and casting directors still thinking it is a good idea to keep casting white actors to play non-white characters when there are so many good actors who would fit both the performance and ethnic bill. It is downright disrespectful to strip away these characters’ culture, because it plays a big part in their identity and their story.

It is not often talked about, but representation in popular culture and media matters, especially to the youth. By seeing ourselves being represented in the culture, it shows that we have a place in the world, it serves as an inspiration to the viewers. When movies only show the same list of A-list actors or when award shows only decorate the same homogenous pool of actors, they are sending a message of exclusivity: if you don’t look a certain way you are not as good. Obviously, that is not true. By displaying racial stereotypes of minorities on screen, it deeply affects how they will see themselves, and could even lead them to resent their own identity.

For the 78th Golden Globes, Lee Isaac Chung’s film will not be contending in any of the Best Picture categories. It is too late to change that, it will be treated as a foreign movie this award season at the Golden Globes. However that may be, the movie has received universal critical praise with a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes from the critics. The audience has yet to rate it as it has not been released in theaters just yet (it has only been shown at Sundance about a year ago). Hollywood loves to do the diversity song and dance, frantically granting every identity representation hoping to hide their elitism from the wider public with a veil of diversity . Yet, amidst all the virtue signaling from those so-called liberals, they can’t stop kicking us Asians to the curb…

Fiona Tan

Fiona Tan is MWR's lead film critic

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