With yesterday’s Oscar nominations, the South Korean film Parasite, by Bong Joon-ho, became only the 12th “foreign language” film to compete for Best Picture. The top prize has only ever been won by a film in the English language or no language (The Artist), meaning that Parasite stands to make history if it can do the unthinkable next month.
But Parasite’s nomination, and its reasonable chances of a victory, make a mockery of the whole Oscars shindig. Because if Parasite can be nominated this year, why couldn’t Portrait of a Lady on Fire? Why weren’t La Dolce Vita, Breathless or Persona ever nominated? Why not, more recently, Toni Erdmann, Elle, or Lazzaro Felice?
The horrible truth that Parasite’s best film nomination reveals is that the Academy Awards were never about quality, but about rewarding a small selection of predominantly white films by white, English-speaking men. If Parasite – a fine, beautifully conceived and directed film – does win, how could the Oscars possibly go back to rewarding middle of the road dreck like The Dallas Buyers Club? Looking back at past awards, in 1983 when the Best Picture category was a shoot-out between middling films like Terms of Endearment and The Dresser, why couldn’t the Academy have spiced things up by chucking in Shōhei Imamura’s 1983 Palme d’Or winner, The Ballad of Narayama?
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It’s almost heartbreaking to imagine how different the film landscape could be today if the Academy Awards had ever recognised “world” cinema for a hot minute – the benefits of visibility and recognition could have meant box office success for dozens of international films, which might have inspired generations.
When Bong Joon-ho won the Best Foreign Film award at the Golden Globes, he dragged the whole of the English-speaking world for filth, by saying, “Once you overcome the one inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” Quite. His film’s success (Parasite has so far grossed over $25M in the US and Canada, a stupendous haul for a small South Korean movie) shows that audiences were always able to engage with international films – they just aren’t given the chance.
And that’s because the Oscars are, in effect, an exercise in propaganda designed to hoodwink people into believing that these nothing films (Chicago! The Green Mile! Places In The Heart!) are worthy of celebration. Of course they are, the biggest night in the cinema calendar tells you as much by inviting them onto the red carpet. And if the awards occasionally get it right and pick something new and adventurous (Moonlight!), that only validates their choices year on year. In fact though, the idea that the best films of the year can only be American or sometimes British is nothing more than an outright lie, an act of cultural imperialism.
In December 2019, a great many film and culture outlets published their lists of the best films of the year, and of the decade. The AV Club, to pick one US site, put out a perfectly amiable list of the 100 best films of the 2010s, which still cleaved astonishingly towards American films in the upper reaches: of their 10 top films, only one (Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation) was not American. In Vulture’s list, A Separation is also the only non-English language film in the top 10. This is quite obviously pure folly – what are the chances, mathematically, that 90 percent of the best films in the world would share one language? – but it no longer even raises eyebrows. That is testament to the sheer tenacity of the myth of the necessity of an American stronghold on cinema.
The most frustrating aspect of this imbalance is that it persists at a time when people are, rightly, demanding better representation of women and minorities on screen, and recognition of the work of people of colour. A very easy way to counteract this injustice would be to watch and nominate more films from countries that aren’t predominantly white – for instance, Mati Diop’s Atlantics, or – last year – Lee Chang-dong’s Burning.
But despite standing a better chance than most of its predecessors, Parasite won’t win the big one on the 9 February. It will win the “you tried” award, for Best Foreign Language Film. The top statue will go to either Once Upon A Time In… Hollywood (which also just happens to be about Hollywood) or 1917 (yet another film about the First World War) – and Hollywood will be able to return to its comforting myth that it really is making the best stuff out there, the sort of films that people want to watch, with people who speak like us. And next year when the Oscars roll around again, and viewers are once more frustrated at the lack of representation, we won’t even bat an eyelid to see that all the contenders for the prize of Best Film of the Year are American.