A year after Parasite, Hollywood is still othering Korean filmmakers

‘Minari’ is expected to be the underdog of the 2021 awards season, but a weird technicality means this Korean-language coming-of-age story might get sadly overlooked.

by Douglas Greenwood
23 December 2020, 2:39pm

In what might be one of the most mind blowing measurements of how slow the past 12 months have felt, it was only this January that Bong Joon-ho, a long-time legend of Korean cinema renowned the world over, stood on stage at the Golden Globes and picked up the prize for Best Foreign Language film for Parasite, following it a month later with a historic Best Picture win at the Oscars. The latter marked what felt like a gearshift in American moviegoing: it was the first film not in the English language to win Best Picture, and subsequently grossed over $50 million at the US box office. 

But it seems as though the embracing of titles not in the English language -- specifically titles from countries outside of the Euro-bubble -- is something the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (who vote for the winners of the Golden Globes) is still getting used to. A set of archaic rules, based on the amount of non-English dialogue in any film, decides whether or not said film can qualify for Best Picture or Best Foreign Language Film; there can only be one or the other. For the Golden Globes, that meant Parasite was, of course, shut out from the Best Picture categories. The film was made in Korea and is entirely in the Korean language, which, to the HFPA, justified its position, though it already felt like a pop cultural moment globally by the time it came to them blessing it with its accolade.  

Now, just a year on, fully aware of the talent of Korean storytellers, the Golden Globes have announced that another film in the Korean language likely to sweep awards season, Minari, will also only be considered as a foreign language film. The key difference between Parasite and Minari, though, is that the latter was funded by American production companies (A24 and Plan B, Brad Pitt’s company who funded Moonlight), shot in the rural towns of America (particularly Arkansas) and was made with a mostly Korean-American cast (The Walking Dead star Steven Yeun plays the key role). In all cases, bar the language these people speak, this is an American film, through and through.

Minari, directed by Isaac Lee Chung, tells the story of a family of Korean immigrants who’ve moved to the USA in search of their own version of the American dream, told from the perspective of their eight-year-old son. It debuted at Sundance Film Festival back in January 2020, and has spent months being hailed by critics as one of the best films of the year. Observer critic Oliver Jones called the film “One of the most profound and honest cinematic depictions of what it means to be American, not just this year, but in recent memory”.

And yet, this story of the families that bolster the USA, add to its economy and create the diverse blood that courses through its veins, is being othered by the very people who should be celebrating its miraculous existence. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association, even after a juggernaut year dominated by Parasite, can’t quite figure out how to process a film that tells a story set on their doorstep, albeit in one of the 350+ languages spoken in the USA that isn’t English. 

But the xenophobia that lies at the heart of this unrectified rule is more insidious because it’s rooted in the subconscious of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s voting body. It’s worth noting that they flouted this rule in the past for a film by a white man with a firm grip on Hollywood: Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds had just a third of its dialogue in English, but was nominated for Best Motion Picture – Drama anyway. They are a group of selected journalists who report on the industry from Hollywood, albeit for outlets around the globe. But their understanding of diversity within the industry has been patchy: they’ve been called out in the past for their lack of appreciation for women filmmakers, and the lack of Black and other POC directors and actors who should have been nominated but weren’t. They exist in the echo chamber of entertainment journalism, all lunches and junkets and schmoozing with A-Listers, that subconsciously leads them to vote for the movies made by the people and studios they are charmed by the most. 

There are just 93 members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, and they dictate what the world goes to see at the movies every winter. Their voices, however dated, are influential. Vulture broke down just who these people were a few years ago

That Minari, a film that speaks of the deeper experience of American people, might suffer as a consequence of its desire to stick to reality, with Korean-American characters speaking in their native language, is just further proof of the Hollywood upheaval that’s desperately needed. As coronavirus has exposed the cracks in high-budget Hollywood filmmaking, it’s the smaller, more modest stories that audiences are tuning in to now. For years, films not in the English language have championed these stories; masterpieces have been made as a consequence. 

With the willingness to make change, those rarities could soon become commonplace. The Parasites and Minaris of the world getting the right amount of love over flashy war flicks like 1917 and the copious Marvel films would only do the industry good. By relegating Minari to a more minor category, the undertold story of a true American family is being sidelined. As America’s most repugnant president exits office, shouldn’t those stories be the ones we hold dear and rightly celebrate, helping them reach the biggest audience possible?