It's time for awards shows to drop best foreign film categories once and for all
- The best foreign language film category is supposed to celebrate international movies.
- But the pseudo-inclusive category is filled with confusing, xenophobic rules that harm the movies.
- "Minari" is the latest movie to suffer at the hands of this category at the Golden Globes.
On Sunday night, "Minari," a film about the pursuit of the Amerian dream, won best foreign language film at the Golden Globe awards.
But the category has drawn more attention than the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which decides which movies are nominated for Golden Globes, would like.
Best foreign language film is a category that gives filmmakers and films that might otherwise go unnoticed by American audiences the opportunity to shine at one of Hollywood's biggest events of the year. Theoretically, it acts as a window into the wider world of international cinema, giving voters and viewers alike a chance to expand their cinematic horizons and see a broader, more diverse range of movies.
In recent years, the category has sown more confusion than celebration. As the definition of "foreign" becomes increasingly foggier, the category feels more and more like pseudo-inclusivity. As awards season finally kicks into gear, it's time to acknowledge that there's little point in putting movies in outdated boxes anymore.
As Danish actor Claes Bang told Insider, "a movie is a movie."
'Minari' became the latest casualty in a series of strange decisions by Golden Globes judges
Lee Isaac Chung's excellent movie "Minari" is the most American film of the year.
It follows South Korean immigrants, Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) and his family, as they try to build a successful farm in 1980s Arkansas - a classic tale of the American dream. It was also written and directed by Korean-American filmmaker Chung, and produced by US-based studios A24 and Brad Pitt's Plan B Entertainment.
—golden (g) string (@thesecretblues) February 3, 2021
Lulu Wang, whose film "The Farewell" suffered the same fate as "Minari" in 2019, tweeted her frustration.
"We really need to change these antiquated rules that characterizes American as only English-speaking," she wrote.
Entertainment and culture writer Jeff Yang told Canadian pop culture site FLARE in 2019 that the Globes' definition of a foreign language movie "doesn't align" with an evolving film industry that is becoming more and more global.
"It creates a circumstance where nonwhite creatives and performers who choose to tell stories about their ancestral cultures are systematically discriminated against," he said.
—Lulu Wang (@thumbelulu) December 23, 2020
As Wang wrote in a 2019 blog post for A24, movies like "The Farewell" (and now "Minari") challenge "what it means to be American and who gets to claim Americanness."
The word "foreign" is a relative, vague, and meaningless phrase that only serves to promote a sense of otherness and alienate certain experiences.
The category's seemingly arbitrary rules only serve to create confusion
According to the HFPA's rules, if 51% of a movie is spoken in languages other than English, it's considered a foreign language film.
Some have suggested that the Globes don't view European languages as quite as "foreign" as languages such as Korean or Chinese, despite the latter's prevalence in the US.
Over 51% of "Inglourious Basterds," for example, was spoken in lanuages other than English, yet it wasn't classified as a foreign language film. Instead, it was nominated for best drama at the 2010 Globes, alongisde a host of other nods.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, the disparity stemmed from a rule in place at the time that barred American productions from competing in the category. But that's part of the problem: seemingly arbitrary rules - that change without warning - create confusion and complexity where there should be none.
—Jacob Oller (@JacobOller) December 23, 2020
The confusion doesn't end there, either.
At the Golden Globes, movies aren't supposed to be nominated in more than one of the four feature film categories. Animated movie and foreign language movie nominees, for example, can't simultaneously be nominated for best drama or best comedy. Yet foreign language movies can be nominated for best animated movie, suggesting that the rules are nonsensical at best.
'Just watch the f---ing movie and see what it does to you'
The result of compartmentalized categories like best foreign language film is that movies like "Minari" aren't seen as top awards-worthy pictures because of what they are, regardless of their quality. Instead, they're kept in their own boxes.
That foreign language films aren't allowed to be nominated in the top two motion picture categories suggests that only movies spoken in English are capable or deserving of the show's top honors. It sends the message that a foreign language film can't be one of the best films of the year purely because it's spoken in a language other than English.
Danish actor and Netflix's "Dracula" star Claes Bang, who starred in the 2017 best foreign language film nominee "The Square," told Insider that he thinks "it would be so much better to have no categories at all."
"What does it actually help in any way to say this movie is that or this? It's a movie, and it's made, hopefully with the intent of telling a story and with a message that comes from the heart," Bang said.
Bang also noted how international movies have their titles changed to suit US audiences. He believes that the emphases placed on titles and categories encourages labelling movies rather than celebrating them.
"Just watch the f---ing movie and see what it does to you," Bang said. "Let it be about what it does for you, instead of someone saying, 'Oh, this should be seen as a movie about this and it needs to be in this category.' Just don't f---ing do those categories and open it up."
The Academy Awards' 'best international film' category is better, but still imperfect
While the Golden Globes hasn't changed its foreign language film category since 1986, the Oscars changed their category title from best foreign language film to best international feature last year.
"'Foreign' is outdated within the global filmmaking community," co-chairs of the International Feature Film Committee Larry Karaszewski and Diane Weyermann said when the title was changed.
The category requires that a film be made outside of the US, as well as predominantly spoken in a language other than English. Paying attention to the film's nationality as well as its language makes more sense, but the Oscars' category is still not without confusion and controversy.
The Academy disqualified Nigeria's 2019 submission because it was spoken in English - but English is Nigeria's official language. Director Ava DuVernay questioned if the ruling meant the Academy was essentially banning Nigeria from ever competing in this category.
The category is muddying the waters of what it means to be foreign or American. But if they can't find the right answer without a heap of controversy, it's wiser to avoid posing the question at all.
—Lulu Wang (@thumbelulu) November 5, 2019
Some stress the potential benefits to the category, but the confusion remains
"Minari" cinematographer Lachlan Milne told Insider that while movies shouldn't be "excluded from the main event" because they are in different languages, he believes that the categories do give "an avenue to a lot of films that might not ordinarily be considered for prestigious awards."
Without these categories, movies like "The Square," "Capernaum," "Theeb," and most other nominees would likely be left out of the awards conversation entirely, shutting the door on new films and new filmmakers worthy of attention.
"It opens up opportunities for those filmmakers," Milne said, adding that he considers an awards nomination, no matter what it is, to be a success.
"I think if you take the foreign language film over no Golden Globe nomination, I think they'd take that," he added.
Still, year after year, the category has created confusion - and takes away from the movies themselves. There always seems to be a new conundrum for awards groups to work out - where to place the film, and why. And as awards groups work harder to become more diverse, these conversations are going to become increasingly futile.
The category only wants to reward certain movies that fit a nebulous definition of "foreign," but there's a ceiling to that reward. The categories are supposed to celebrate the movies, but that celebration comes with an asterisk because they're held to a different standard.
Awards groups point to this category as an example of embracing a diverse range of movies without actually having to truly embrace them. The mere existence of this category indicates that foreign language movies will always be second to English language, "American" movies.
Gettind rid of the foreign language film category would level the playing field, and would show audiences and voters that all films are films, no matter what.
As Bang told Insider, maybe it's time awards groups stop worrying about how to class a film and "just f---ing watch the film" instead.
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