This commentary originally ran in The Seattle Times.
When South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho won the best picture Oscar for “Parasite” in 2020, he made history with the first non-English language film ever to win that top prize.
“Parasite” also took home best director, original screenplay and international feature film awards, earning him congratulations from everyone up to the then-president of South Korea.
Such high-level accolades may not be unusual for directors of Academy Award winners, but they’re particularly meaningful for international filmmakers, for whom an Oscar can mean the difference between widespread distribution and global renown or limited audiences and, in some cases (not Bong’s), obscurity.
That’s why film professionals around the world will be paying close attention to the shortlisted nominees for best international film to be announced Dec. 21.
Curiously, this is one of the Oscar categories that tends to elude much notice on the Academy’s home shores. It’s something I personally struggle to come to terms with, as a fan, critic and instructor of international cinema.
Sure, American audiences pay attention when there’s controversy — and this prize has its fair share, from changing its name in 2019 from the outdated “foreign-language,” to once not accepting an English-language submission from Nigeria, where English is the official language.
But before theaters were shut down due to COVID, non-English language films were accounting for only around 1% of domestic box-office grosses. And now, films are premiering on-demand and online faster than ever.
Seattle follows these same trends, though there are also signs this can be a fertile market for international movies.
“We are cultural risk-takers in a way that a lot of cities are not,” suggests Beth Barrett, artistic director at the Seattle International Film Festival who programs at both the festival and its three local theaters.
She points to Seattle’s young, international population and vibrant music and museum scenes, as well as its film market: “On every level, our arts and culture community is constantly pushing us to discover.”
That attitude can benefit international and independent films, which thrive on word-of-mouth.
Getting the word out
“Parasite” is a prime example. It started generating buzz even before its Oscar nominations after nabbing the top prize at Cannes, a first for its country.
As Barrett puts it, the film “became part of the national conversation,” the kind of movie people were talking about around the water-cooler (back when people went to offices).
“Parasite” went on to become the fourth top-grossing “foreign-language” film of all time in the U.S. Locally, it is also SIFF Cinema’s top grossing film of all time and tied “Lady Bird” to stay up on its screens the longest (16 weeks). “The word-of-mouth about how good it was is the reason that people were able to keep it on screen,” Barrett says.
International films rely heavily on festivals, prestige awards like the Oscars and critical attention to garner that buzz.
“Oscar exposure remains a major factor in public interest in a film,” according to Paul Siple, communications manager and content editor at Northwest Film Forum. “Invariably, the more coverage a film has received in advance of its theatrical debut in Seattle, the more likely it is to outpace other films’ sales at NWFF.”
As the number of art house theaters have dwindled in recent decades, Barrett notes, “festivals really took up that mantle of being the place that you could still see those [international films], the place that you could still travel the world without leaving your seat, so to speak.”
Foreign films have been a staple at NWFF since its inception, according to Siple, and Barrett says the great majority of films shown at SIFF are international, part of the original intent of the festival’s founders. She also cites the impact of longtime SIFF and local art house programmer Ruth Hayler, who passed away last month, on Seattle audiences’ “desire to see subtitled films.”
In his Oscar acceptance speech for “Parasite,” Bong said, “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”
I couldn’t agree more, but it’s a slow sea change. “Parasite” is the exception, not the norm.
With generally small marketing budgets and limited theatrical releases, international films struggle to find audiences stateside. Even international Oscar winners earn on average less than $4 million at the domestic box office, barring exceptions.
People point to streaming platforms as a potential savior, and certainly titles like Netflix’s 2019 international Oscar winner “Roma,” current contender “All Quiet on the Western Front” from Germany, as well as series like “Squid Game” and “Money Heist,” encourage this stance.
But streamers have “personalization” algorithms that are widely criticized for creating our own individual echo chambers: You have to watch international content to be marketed international content.
Anecdotally, years’ worth of surveys of my students at Central Washington University suggests exposure is the main factor limiting their consumption of “foreign-language” films, followed by a lack of interest. “I don’t see many reviews or hear word-of-mouth about them” and “I don’t seek them out online” are consistently the top responses among six options, followed by “I don’t enjoy subtitles or dubbing.”
Why watch international movies?
What do we miss out on when we ignore international films? Movies open us up to the stories, places, ways of life and idiosyncrasies of cultures around the world. I believe they make us more tolerant, open-minded and complete. We learn things about ourselves, and for many, they offer a connection to family roots.
There are some amazing-looking films among the 92 official contenders for this year’s International Oscar, many of which festival-watchers will recognize. The collection could represent the breadth of human experience.
European titles often dominate the list. Front-runners this year include Ali Abassi’s Iran-set “Holy Spider” representing Denmark, Belgian Lukas Dhont’s coming-of-age “Close,” Alice Diop’s “Saint Omer” from France, Spain’s “Alcarràs,” Poland’s “EO,” Austria’s “Corsage” and Ireland’s “The Quiet Girl.”
Director Park Chan-wook is garnering a lot of attention to possibly follow in compatriot Bong Joon-ho’s footsteps with noir romance “Decision to Leave.” Mexican director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s semi-autobiographical tour-de-force, “Bardo,” is another favorite, and “Argentina, 1985,” directed by Santiago Mitre, could also be a contender.
The shortlist being announced Dec. 21 will consist of 15 semifinalists. The final five will be revealed with the other category nominations on Jan. 24. I hope you’ll keep your eyes out.
The International Oscars shortlist was announced on Dec. 21, 2022.