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Foreign-Language Films Break Into Other Categories

Decision to Leave Bardo Corsage
Cannes Film Festival/Limbo Films/Everett Collection

After winning the 1998 Thalberg Award, Norman Jewison told the press backstage: “The broader the Academy reaches for artistic excellence in filmmaking, the more important it becomes. Hollywood can’t isolate itself. We’re not the only talented people in the world.”

It’s taken a long time, but Academy voters and the U.S. film industry are heeding Jewison’s advice.

This year, dozens of countries have submitted entries for the international film competition. A few of them have gone beyond that, looking for (deserved) recognition in other races.

That includes several international film entries, such as Austria’s “Corsage”; Belgium’s “Close”; Cambodia’s “Return to Seoul”; Denmark’s “Holy Spider”; Germany’s “All Quiet on the Western Front”; India’s “The Last Film Show”; Mexico’s “Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths”; Poland’s “Eo”; and South Korea’s “Decision to Leave.”

Countries outside the U.S. have realized that Oscar’s glow can spread over categories beyond international film.

Lukas Dhont, director of “Close,” tells Variety, “I think the ‘Parasite’ win was a turning point. It was chosen not only best international film but also best film. With cinema, we transcend boxes: It’s not about borders or frontiers, and it’s good to feel there is this possibility.”

Marie Kreutzer, director of “Corsage,” says she loves the idea of non-English films being considered in other races. “The Oscars make films automatically known in the entire world. And international films don’t typically have that on the same scale — so this is great.” 

In addition, subtitled films are being considered in multiple categories, even if they’re not a country’s official submissions. 

For example, S.S. Rajamouli’s epic “RRR,” produced by DVV Entertainment, was released in the U.S. by Variance Films and is getting an across-all-categories Oscar campaign. 

The film gained fans when it was released in the U.S. in March 2022, and word of mouth encouraged a broader release; its berth on Netflix also was a huge boost. The public, including critics and social-media influencers, started an online movement to get the film Oscar attention.

Variance execs listened because they understood the world is changing. As Rajamouli tells Variety, “In the last 15-20 years, people are getting more exposed to other cultures and other languages. COVID sped up that process. People sat at home watching international movies, TV shows and other fare, and it opened their minds. Now, audiences are definitely more open to people from other cultures.”

Presumably, this also applies to awards voters.

Of course the top prize is best picture. For the Academy’s first 40 years,“Grand Illusion” (1938) was the only non-English nominee; finally it was joined in 1969 by “Z.” In 94 years, only a dozen subtitled films have been nominated in the best-pic category (plus a few multi-language footnotes, such as “Babel” and “Slumdog Millionaire”). This year, several films could find themselves in both categories, international and best picture.

The actress race is crowded with English-language performances, but subtitled films offer further possibilities, such as Vicky Krieps in “Corsage”; Park Ji-min in “Return to Seoul”; and Zar Amir-Ebrahimi, who won the Cannes festival’s actress award for her work in “Holy Spider,” directed by Ali Abbasi.

In the Davy Chou-directed “Seoul,” the characters speak French, Korean and English, but it’s Cambodia’s entry. Park plays a complex role, showing massive personal changes in her character over eight years. It’s a tour-de-force performance, even more impressive since it’s her acting debut.

The first Oscar for a non-English performance went to Sophia Loren for “Two Women” (1961) and there have been about 40 subsequent acting nominations, extending through Penelope Cruz in the 2021 “Parallel Mothers.”

Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences voters this year also have a chance to recognize directors such as Park Chan-wook, for “Decision to Leave.” Amazingly, Park has never received Oscar attention. This may be his year and he wouldn’t be alone, with Dhont (“Close”), Edward Berger (“All Quiet”), Marie Kreutzer (“Corsage”), Alejandro G. Inarritu (“Bardo”), Rajamouli, Pan Nalin (“The Last Film Show”) and plenty of other possibilities.

Federico Fellini became the first director nominated for a subtitled film, with the 1960 “La Dolce Vita.” Since then, there have been about three dozen director noms for non-English films, through last year’s Ryûsuke Hamaguchi (“Drive My Car”). As a sign of voters’ increasing openness, one-third of those noms came in the 21st century, after trickling in for the Academy’s first 73 years. 

There are many possibilities in every category — such as costumes (Monika Buttinger, “Corsage”), cinematography (“Eo,” directed by Jerzy Skolimowski); and editing (“All Quiet,” “Close,” “Decision to Leave”).

Every film mentioned here deserves screenplay consideration and if history is any indication, that’s where they have the best chance. The Academy’s writers branch has nominated a hefty 78 non-English screenplays in 94 years, far more recognition than any other branch. (This started in the 1940s, showing that scribes were way ahead of Jewison.)

The current rules for international film (formerly known as foreign-language film) require that the movie play in its country of origin for at least seven consecutive days, opening between Jan. 1 and Nov. 30. And at least 50% of the dialogue must NOT be English. No U.S. playdates are required. However, to qualify in other categories, the films must comply with the same rules as other pics: a seven-day engagement in the U.S. starting in calendar year 2022.

In 2000, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” set a record for subtitled films, with 10 nominations, still unmatched. The 2019 “Parasite” (released in the U.S. by Neon) marked another breakthrough. 

With six nominations, its four wins included best picture, the first time a movie totally without English language was the winner. To other countries, it was a reminder that another such win is possible.

Oscar recognition is not only about talent, but also about national image. After Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” had its great Oscar showing, South Korean president Moon Jae In wrote on Twitter that the film had given “South Korean people pride and courage …”

In India, film lovers are following the awards progress of its two films. Though some rivals have tried to denigrate “Last Film Show,” it’s a hit locally and abroad, with both critics and audiences. Samuel Goldwyn Co. distributes it in the U.S.

Oscar history has been easily dominated by English-language movies. “But things are changing a little worldwide,” Nalin tells Variety. “People are discovering our film and works in other languages. And I hope it continues that way.”

He adds, “A lot more people are watching subtitled movies in the U.S. There is more awareness, because streaming platforms brought subtitled works to people at home because of the pandemic.”

As Belgium’s Dhont sums up, his film has screened at many U.S. festivals since its May debut at Cannes, “And every time, theaters were full and the response is really enthusiastic. That gave me hope and feeling that there is huge openness to seeing things not only in English language. We are diversifying and living more and more in a world where things are presented in different forms and not only in our own language.”