The film's meteoric rise is a hopeful sign of change, but ‘international’ film designations have locked non-American films in an unnecessary paradox.
As of February 2, Bong Joon Ho’s epic South Korean class parable Parasite has earned $33.4 million at the North American box office, becoming one of the most successful non-English films ever in this market. Parasite has continued its rise through film awards season, also becoming the first international film to win the top prizes at the Screen Actors Guild Awards and Writers Guild Awards. The days are now closing in on Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony, where Parasite has potential to become the first ever non-English film to win the Oscar for Best Picture—Hollywood’s most iconic accolade.
Though so-called ‘international’ films have long dominated festivals like Cannes, Berlinale, and Venice, The Academy has often been deliberate about treating them as a separate, subordinate category. The tide has slowly been turning, however, with Alfonso Cuarón’s Mexico City-based picture Roma picking up three Oscars at last year’s ceremony, and even coming within a few inches of the Best Picture win. But as Hollywood seems to become more accepting of films beyond its borders, the systems that have ‘othered’ international films still remain strong.
Parasite’s meteoric rise guaranteed the film a nomination—and likely a win—for Best International Feature, but the path was not so clear cut for other would-be nominees. The Academy’s stipulations for this award are much more complicated than those that rule other categories—in brief, countries designate their own nominating committees who select one film to represent their national cinema, which is then submitted to the Academy for voting. This year’s chosen nominees come from South Korea (Parasite), France (Les Misérables), Poland (Corpus Christi), North Macedonia (Honeyland), and Spain (Pain and Glory). Though the winning film’s award will be accepted by its director, it is designed to honor its country of origin and its film industry, rather than any individual filmmakers. As such, nominees for Best International Feature become de-facto symbols of their nation and culture writ large.
This can be problematic for a litany of reasons, particularly where notions of national identity are up for debate, or seen through an essentializing Euro-American gaze. Historically, films not made in a country’s ‘official’ national language were disqualified—including those in indigenous languages, such as Canada’s 2001 Inuktitut-language submission Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. This rule was abolished in 2006, but Best International Feature submissions that are mostly in English are still disallowed, such as this year’s Nigerian entry Lionheart, despite English being one of Nigeria’s national languages. The nominations process is caught up in a strange, sticky nexus of linguistic and national sovereignty politics that seem confusing at best, and antiquated or racist at worst.
Despite the Academy’s insistence that Best International Feature nominees cannot be in English, many of their voters—and American moviegoers in general—hold bizarre contempt for reading subtitles. While most cultures around the world are raised on a diet of international cinema (which includes Hollywood movies), the US remains one of the most homogeneous and perhaps xenophobic film markets, exporting its media properties around the globe, but remaining deeply troubled by the ostensibly arduous prospect of having to read subtitles themselves.
For example, in 1993, Martin Scorsese responded to an article in The New York Times in which writer Bruce Weber assailed “the work you had to do to ferret out the story” in the films of Federico Fellini. Scorsese eloquently derided this criticism of the Italian master filmmaker, writing:
“It reminds me of a beer commercial that ran a while back. The commercial opened with a black and white parody of a foreign film—obviously a combination of Fellini and Bergman. Two young men are watching it, puzzled, in a video store, while a female companion seems more interested. A title comes up: ‘Why do foreign films have to be so foreign?’ The solution is to ignore the foreign film and rent an action-adventure tape, filled with explosions, much to the chagrin of the woman.
It seems the commercial equates ‘negative’ associations between women and foreign films: weakness, complexity, tedium. I like action-adventure films too. I also like movies that tell a story, but is the American way the only way of telling stories? […]
If you accept the answer in the commercial, why not take it to its natural progression:
Why don’t they make movies like ours?
Why don’t they tell stories as we do?
Why don’t they dress as we do?
Why don’t they eat as we do?
Why don’t they talk as we do?
Why don’t they think as we do?
Why don’t they worship as we do?
Why don’t they look like us?
Ultimately, who will decide who ‘we’ are?”
27 years after Scorsese’s Letter to the Editor, entertainment reporters are finding that Hollywood still finds reasons to disparage non-English films; on February 1, Oscars expert Will Mavity spoke with 17 Academy members who allegedly hadn’t yet seen Parasite because they “don’t want to deal with subtitles,” despite it being one of the top awards contenders. The argument that foreign films require additional ‘work’ to understand, or are incomprehensible to American audiences, presents English-language Hollywood films as ‘normal’ and the subtitled imports as deviant.
Within the genre of foreign film, some films are yet more foreign than others. This pecking order is not only about language, but as journalist Jamie Righetti points out, tends to be much harsher toward films from majority non-white countries—if it is work by Godard, Truffaut, Bergman, or Bertolucci, suddenly subtitles are much less of a concern. In fact, although Parasite’s Oscar nominations swept the craft categories, none of its cast were rewarded, which writer E. Alex Jung says upholds the stereotype that Asians are technical workers, and not “fully human.”
The ‘foreign’ or ‘international’ film designation is locked in a political paradox. On one hand, awards bodies like The Academy maintain strong biases against non-English, subtitled films, while on the other, they insist upon illogical linguistic and nationalist eligibility practices. The American film industry has erected unnecessary barriers for films vying for Best International Feature, but even moreso, demonstrates deeply entrenched xenophobia that prevents art by ‘foreigners’ from moving beyond this othering designation.
Parasite’s ascent—and Roma’s before it—is a hopeful sign that things are changing. But even if international cinema can puncture the mainstream Hollywood bubble, how will years of negative semantics continue to impact how (white and non-immigrant) Americans watch these films? The integration of international cinema is predicated on exoticism; Western audiences are told that the views of a given film or filmmaker stand for an entire culture’s experience. And Western gatekeepers like The Academy often privilege narratives that focus on the negative elements of unfamiliar societies; it has been suggested, for example, that the most popular Iranian New Wave films in the West are those that reinforce anti-Muslim views. Success in our market means preserving our hierarchy, in which the US is standard bearer, the nucleus around which ‘the global’ must circulate and depend, the unmarked default against which all other national cinemas are defined.
The Western gaze comes with baggage, so that it is difficult for us to see others clearly and ourselves critically. What would happen if—like Cuarón suggested last year—we thought of Hollywood as its own kind of national cinema? If we held it up to the light and examined its cracks and fissures, would it still seem like the center of the cinematic universe, or would we see that it is far less ‘typical,’ tolerant, and inclusive than we would like to think? Though a few exceptions are allowed in, Hollywood is defensive about keeping itself American, and in doing so, presents a controlled and limited view of what that means.
In the words of Bong Joon Ho, “the Oscars are not an international festival. They are very local.”