From “Parasite” to “Minari”: Is Hollywood really ready for subtitles?

A year after the Korean thriller won big at the Oscars, Lee Isaac Chung’s 2021 snub at its sister ceremony begs the question: did anything really change?

Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” won by at last year’s Oscars, making Academy Award history
Korean thriller “Parasite” was a shock winner at last year’s Oscars, breaking barriers and making history. (Picture: Reuters)

Just before Christmas, The Hollywood Foreign Press stirred controversy by revealing Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari”, one of the most critically acclaimed films of 2020, would not be eligible to win at any of the Best Motion Picture categories in the upcoming Golden Globes.

According to THFP, the film was relegated to the foreign category, much like last year’s “The Farewell”, from Chinese director Lulu Wang, because it is primarily spoken in a language that is not English (Korean, in “Minari”s case). This decision led to criticism from several industry players — perhaps most notably, Wang herself, who tweeted out her grievances with the implication that “Minari” is seen by the Globes as “foreign” — despite being a film which takes place in the US, and is funded and distributed by American companies (A24 and Plan B, respectively). “I have not seen a more American film than Minari this year,” said the director. “We really need to change these antiquated rules that characterize America as only English-speaking”.

Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari”, despite a very successful festival run, was barred from the main races at the Golden Globes. (Picture: Sundance Institute)

It’s been almost a year since the 92nd Academy Awards took place, in a seemingly distant past in which seat filled award shows were still a thing of the norm. What wasn’t typical, though, was the big winner of the night – for the first time in its almost centenary existence, a foreign film took home the coveted Best Picture award. “Parasite”, written, directed, and partly produced by soon-to-be overnight celebrity Bong Joon-Ho, took home prize after prize, and every time the man behind the self-described “family tragicomedy” took the stage, the ceremony, often accused of being predictable and foppish, felt fun and fresh. Twitter erupted with memes paying tribute to Ho’s entertaining personality, mirrored in his candid and endearing speeches — all conducted in Korean, just like the film which had brought him there in the first place.

It felt like the antiquated rules that Lulu Wang cites now had been extinguished when the Best Picture winner was announced and the Dolby Theather erupted into applause as “Parasite”s cast and crew stepped on stage. But, alas, as “Minari” is now excluded from the very same accolades at the Golden Globes, it seems like perhaps things didn’t change at all. “Parasite” taking home the little golden man at the end of the night might have just been a condescending pat in the back; a possibility which the fact that the movie is already being adapted by HBO to an American television series starring Mark Ruffalo makes seem ever more real.

Despite the fact that The Golden Globes and The Academy Awards are two different ceremonies, it is indisputable that the first influences the latter. They have their differences; The Golden Globes, generally seen as the award season kicker, has more categories, splitting nominations between genre (drama or musical / comedy) and medium (television does not enter the Oscar nominations). The Globes are also seen as the more laid back, relaxed version of the Oscars; one of their main attraction sites over the past few years has been British comedian Ricky Gervais, who comes back to host and roast celebrity fanfare every year.

They love him — especially THFPA, which bestow the accolades. You would think that a group of foreign journalists and photographers would be more welcoming of outsider perspectives such as “Minari” — but, so far, the Oscars, whose organization is made up of industry ringers, is beating them to it.

The Oscars’ relationship with foreign film is a complicated one, to this day; just like the Globes, as was made clear by the “Minari” controversy this holiday season, the rules feel like ancient relics from a time in which people didn’t look for films outside their borders. Much thanks to streaming platforms like Netflix (with whom The Academy and many of its members also hold a strained connection), audiences have now, more than ever, a literal world of film and television at their fingertips. In fact, at the top of the list of the site’s highest-grossing movies from 2020 (as adjusted to ticket price inflation), sits a Spanish production, the animated Christmas film “Klaus”. In 2018, Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Roma’, another Netflix production, made history before “Parasite” by becoming the first foreign film to win Best Director at the 91st Academy Awards. But not Best Picture; it might have been too soon, but it is unquestionable that Cuarón quietly paved the way for “Parasite”’s larger than life victory the following year.

Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” was a surprise hit at the 2019 Academy Awards — but it failed to nab the Best Picture nomination, which went to Peter Farrelly’s “Green Book” instead. (Picture: Netflix)

Although that year Best Picture eventually ended up going to Peter Farrelly’s “Green Book”, Cuarón picked up the torch passed on to him by previous Mexican winners in the Best Director category — a tradition which went on almost uninterrupted since 2013, with Iñárritu and Del Toro taking home the coveted prize as well. But, despite seeing more and more foreign names nominated in categories other than the 1947 born slate for Best Foreign Film (now International Feature Film), the Oscars had yet to allow a non-English film to take home Best Picture. That is until “Parasite” came along and changed the game. Or did it?

Sadly, “Minari” getting booted off the big categories by THFP appears to signal, on the first impression, The Golden Globes remain as archaic as they were last year — in which they gave “Parasite”, which would go on to win four Academy Awards (including Best Picture) a measly Best Foreign Film nod. Bong Jon Hoo and crew accepted gracefully and went on to become, by far, the most (if not only) memorable part of the Oscars a month later. One might think; “how embarrassing”.

When accepting the Hollywood Foreign Press Association given award (the only one he was due that evening) Ho spoke mostly in Korean, as he always did every time he took the stage during the award season. Beside him stood, as always, Are Wowing, his interpreter, who repeated his words in English. He said, and she repeated for us to understand: “once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films”.

Now, almost a year later, the people might have; but the heavily criticized “Minari” snub proves The Golden Globes, set to take place this February, still have a long way to go. Historically, their picks have paved the way for The Academy’s nominations; this year, we will have to wait until March, the time the nominees for the April ceremony will be announced, to know if “Parasite”’s sweep was as historical as it was made out to be in 2020.

Writer. Obsessed with pop culture.