International film and the Oscars

In a Q&A, Meta Mazaj, senior lecturer in Cinema & Media Studies, explains U.S. attitudes toward international cinema and how foreign-language films may fare at this year’s Oscars.

Oscars statue with film reel

Among this year’s Academy Awards film contenders is “Parasite,” the genre-bending South Korean film directed by Bong Joon-ho. With six nominations heading into the Feb. 9 ceremony, it is, alongside 2018 film “Roma,” one of the most acclaimed foreign language films—the entire film is spoken in Korean—of recent years.

And, potentially, it could be the first foreign language film to win Best Picture. 

Here, Meta Mazaj, a senior lecturer in the Cinema & Media Studies Program in the School of Arts and Sciences, weighs in on this year’s Oscars and, moreover, the historical neglect of foreign language films by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and American audiences’ unique aversion to subtitles. 

How is the Oscars handling international film right now? I’m thinking about Bong Joon-ho and what he said in an interview about him perceiving the Oscars as a ‘very local’ awards ceremony and not international.

By ‘local,’ he meant Hollywood celebrating itself, rather than celebrating world cinema, as it often claims to do. I think that’s absolutely the case, on several levels. When it comes to the Academy, international films have traditionally been relegated to the category of ‘Foreign Language Films,’ with its main award known as ‘the foreign film Oscar.’ It’s a parochial and outdated term that separates ‘us’ versus ‘them.’ After years of controversies around what films can qualify, they changed it this year to ‘International Feature Film’ to project better cultural awareness. 

For example, both Austrian and Nigerian international feature contenders (‘Joy’ and ‘Lionheart’) were disqualified by the Oscars this year because they have too much English dialogue. Or, until 2008, no Palestinian entry could qualify, on the grounds that ‘Palestine is not a country.’ Many examples like this show that ghettoization happens both in terms of the larger picture and within the category of foreign films itself, which seems to privilege only a certain kind of film. And this is reflective of a larger attitude of Hollywood and the U.S. toward other film cultures.

Then there’s the issue of subtitles. Bong Joon-ho referred to it as ‘the one-inch obstacle’ that in the U.S. context is more like an impenetrable wall. The fact is that for audiences in other parts of the world, exposure to subtitles and foreign films has been a regular part of film experience. It’s something [audiences from other countries] take for granted.

Talk more about that. Maybe people don’t even realize that’s happening. If the mass audience hears a film has subtitles here, it’s usually a ‘No thanks.’

Yes, and this attitude has a long history that’s been nurtured by the industry. Imported films from Italy, France, Germany, and the UK were relatively common and successful until the early 1930s. Gradually, imports were phased out and often replaced—rather than translated—by remakes. After World War II, the decline of the Hollywood studio system and the explosion of powerful international New Waves like Italian Neorealism and the French New Wave led to an increase in imports again. This displaced Hollywood from its throne, but even then, these films tended to circulate within the ghettoized ‘independent art cinema’ and not the mainstream. 

Subtitled or foreign films were always seen as an obstacle to commercial distribution, and that was a trend for decades. It wasn’t until Ang Lee’s ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ in 2002 that a non-English dialogue film achieved the commercial box office success comparable to an American blockbuster. In fact, this was the first foreign language film that broke the English-only wall of the American multiplex. It also broke the records for getting most Oscar nominations for a non-English language film.

And now ‘Parasite,’ a Korean film, is nominated in several major categories.

Yes. It’s walking on the path carved by films such as ‘CTHD,’ ‘The Artist,’ a French film which won Best Picture in 2011—it’s silent though, so arguably not a ‘foreign language’ film—and last year’s ‘Roma,’ nominated for 10 Oscars. This is certainly reflective of the globalization of the film market, and larger visibility of world cinema. 

But it’s also reflective of the increased popularity of South Korean cinema, and Asian cinema more generally, which has been on the rise since the late 1990s. Think of successes like Park Chan-wook’s ‘Oldboy’ and ‘Handmaiden’; Bong Joon-ho’s ‘The Host,’ ‘Snowpiercer,’ and ‘Okja’; Wong Kar-wai’s ‘The Grandmaster,’ to mention just a few. Asian cinema has been the only cinema that competes commercially with Hollywood when it comes to popular cinema. We can’t say that about any other national cinemas, which have certainly had influence on Hollywood, but only in the art cinema sector. Filmmakers like [Martin] Scorsese and [Francis Ford] Coppola may have grown up on the great auteurs of international New Waves, but French, Italian, German, Iranian, or Indian popular cinemas are nowhere on their—or wider audiences’—radar.

Not so with Asian cinema. Since the 1980s, Hollywood has been turning its attention to established stars, genres, and commercial achievements of Asian cinema. It has been recruiting the talent, appropriating their popular genres, and remaking their successes on a scale that’s not comparable to anything else. Actors like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, or Chow Yun-fat, and directors like John Woo have all become a major force in Hollywood. And one can’t imagine a director like [Quentin] Tarantino without the influence of martial arts genre and Asian cinema auteurs. 

What qualifies as an Asian blockbuster? Is ‘Parasite’ designed that way?

Even if it wasn’t designed that way, it’s certainly achieved that status by now. It’s grossed $165 worldwide, and the excitement it’s generating is still going strong. It has surpassed Bong Joon-ho’s first blockbuster film, ‘The Host,’ in 2006. A lot has been written on the Korean blockbuster and what a significant phenomenon it is, in that it has de-Westernized the concept of the blockbuster, traditionally associated with Hollywood entertainment cinema. Since the early 2000s, the Korean blockbuster became this big thing that showed that Hollywood is not a single power center with an exclusive grip on global blockbusters. These films competed with Hollywood in production quality and global audience appeal, and they often outperformed their Hollywood counterparts in their own national and regional markets. 

There’s a debate in critical and academic circles about whether these films are just copying Hollywood formulas—the industry has often been pejoratively dubbed as ‘Copywood’—or whether they offer a model of resistance to Hollywood domination, a localized response to globalization. What is clear to me is that they are an important testament to Asian cinema’s influence on a global scale. 

So, Bong Joon-ho has both been riding this train and propelling it faster.

How is the Academy handling the exposure that streaming is giving international films? Is there improvement? Are they doing better?

I think the Academy is definitely still very begrudged and wants to make a statement against Netflix. This was clearly visible last year with ‘Roma,’ and perhaps this year with Scorsese’s ‘The Irishman.’ They want to preserve the purity of a theatrical release, similarly to some prestigious film festivals like Cannes, which hasn’t been accepting Netflix films for its main competition after Bong Joon-ho’s ‘Okja’ controversy in 2017.

Are we on an upward trajectory? You could say yes, and a lot of that is due to bigger accessibility on streaming platforms. More international films are available to wider audiences, and Hollywood itself has become more international than ever before. If foreign directors have always been in Hollywood, these directors today—Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro Iñárritu, Paul Verhoeven, Ang Lee, Wong Kar Wai—along with the star of this interview, are a powerhouse, making studio tentpoles. That’s definitely a positive development. 

But at the same time, I think that doesn’t necessarily lead to diversifying the product. The films that gain most visibility are still those that are already geared toward Western audiences, films that have shaped its narrative and style in a way that is familiar and palatable to us. 

If you look at the career trajectory of somebody like Bong Joon-ho or even Iñárritu or Ang Lee, it’s not that at a certain point in time we just started appreciating them because they’ve been around and gained recognition for their work. They achieved the status of global auteur and gained visibility as they transitioned to making films that are more consciously positioned on a global stage. ‘Parasite’ may be set in South Korea, with a Korean director and cast, et cetera, but its narrative and aesthetic is very much designed to appeal to Western audiences, as opposed to let’s say ‘Mother,’ which I think is his best film but didn’t come anywhere close to ‘Parasite’ in recognition. Bong Joon-ho is a master; he knows exactly how to work the formula to appeal to wider audiences. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it goes to show that we’re OK with ‘foreignness’ only when much of it has been erased and reduced to language, setting, and cast, but not narrative and style. 

What’s also noteworthy is he signed an HBO deal to extend ‘Parasite.’ So, will it be a foreign language TV series or more of an adaptation, like what we were saying about Americans remaking films. It’s an interesting case. And that it would be on HBO is maybe progress?

Yes. He says that when he worked on a ‘Parasite’ script, a lot of his ideas couldn’t make it into the film. He sees the HBO deal as an opportunity to expand the story, rather than remake it. It remains to be seen what the miniseries will be in relation to the film.

There’s another example of this, ‘Downhill,’ coming soon that’s an American remake of the Swedish ‘Force Majeure.’

Right. Such a brilliant film—why remake it? Remakes are a whole other chapter, particularly remakes of Asian cinema. From the ‘The Magnificent Seven’ (a remake of ‘Seven Samurai’), ‘The Departed’ (a remake of ‘Infernal Affairs’) and ‘Shall We Dance,’ to ‘The Ring’ (a remake of ‘Ringu.’). Asian horror in particular has been a favorite genre for remakes.

You could see the practice of remakes, which has intensified since the 1980s, as a form of translation that gets around the strangeness of subtitles, but also attempts to translate foreignness on other levels of content and style. It’s mostly about harnessing the potential of local successes for lucrative global markets. But beyond profit, remakes actually raise a lot of interesting questions about translation, adaptation, cross-cultural exchanges, hybridity, fandom, et cetera.  

‘Parasite’ got in this year, but there was a notable international film that didn’t, ‘The Farewell.’ Awkwafina won the Golden Globe, a big thing, so that’s interesting because the film marries American and Chinese sensibilities. There are no subtitles when she speaks, but in the China scenes it’s all subtitles.

Lulu Wang is Chinese-American, and fantastic as the film is, it almost didn’t get made because they couldn’t pitch it as either an American or Chinese film. It says something about how narrowly audiences and markets for these audiences are still conceived. Lulu Wang had a hard time with American investors who thought it was too Chinese to work for the American market, and an equally hard time with Chinese investors who thought the diasporic perspective and identity of the main character won’t resonate with Chinese audiences. An independent production company, Big Beach, finally decided to back the film after her story caught buzz on the radio. 

And of course, Awkwafina’s star power helped a lot. A beautiful film that would never have seen the light of day because of these ‘translation’ issues, which extend well beyond language and subtitles, as we can see. 

How do you see this barrier being resolved, if that’s possible? Is there a role the Academy can play? They still play that gatekeeper role, to a degree.

I feel like the film landscape has already changed and diversified considerably, and the Academy is very slow to recognize these changes. Amazing films and more diverse films, including those by an increasing number of women directors, are being made every year. These films take us in exciting new directions, but it doesn’t help that most of them have been entirely snubbed by the Academy. Last year, for example, ‘Leave No Trace’ by the brilliant Debra Granik, which I think was the best American film of the year, was entirely ignored by the Oscars. All the ‘white-male rage’ [Laughs] satirized by ‘SNL,’ which apparently represents this year’s top contenders (‘Joker,’ ‘The Irishman,’ ‘1917,’ ‘Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood’), reflects less the films out there, and more the still-outdated demographic of the Academy voters, who are still largely white, old, and male. Unfortunately, this translates into cultural value and visibility that many films and filmmakers who deserve it don’t have access to.

Who wins the International Film Oscar this year?

Two-hundred percent it’s going to be ‘Parasite.’ I don’t think there’s even a competition there. But my hope is that this will be the first year that an international feature ends up winning ‘Best Picture.’ I think with ‘Parasite,’ it could happen.

That would be exciting.

The awards that the film has garnered so far, the excitement it keeps generating—these are all good signs. The industry seems wholeheartedly behind the film, and it’s not burdened by the Netflix controversy that surrounded ‘Roma.’ I’m certainly cheering for it, and I’m sure everyone is more than ready for the Academy to break new grounds.