As the debate continues about the importance of language in the telling of stories through film, August Man takes a look at some non-English films that received top honours at The Academy Awards. Though it may indicate that the Oscars are more open to films of a different language, it must also be noted that till today, no “foreign language” film has won in the Best Picture category, leading to critiques of ethnocentrism by the Academy. Nonetheless, here’s a look at some that came pretty close.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Mandarin):
Before he claimed his Best Director Oscar for Brokeback Mountain and The Life of Pi, it was the Mandarin film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) that propelled Ang Lee to international acclaim. Though already critically recognised for his unique storytelling style as encapsulated in films like The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman, it was the epic tale that centred on the search for an all-powerful sword, infused with woes of forbidden love, elements of sacrifice and the search for identity that placed the Taiwanese director alongside Hollywood heavyweights. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon which stars Malaysia’s very own Tan Sri Michelle Yeoh alongside Hong Kong’s Chow Yun-Fat and introduced a then unknown Zhang Zi-Yi even made it to the cover of Time and has since been hailed by the magazine as being one of the top films to be made since 2000. The film paid tribute to the martial arts films of yesteryear featuring gravity defying stunts and some pretty impressive swashbuckling scenes between the female protagonists Yeoh and Zhang. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon received six Oscar nominations including for Best Picture and gave Ang Lee his first Oscar nomination. However, despite a strong performance by the cast, the film received no acting nominations. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon won three Oscars including for Best Foreign Language Film but the Best Picture Oscar honour went to Gladiator while Steven Soderbergh was named Best Director for Traffic.
Life is Beautiful (Italian):
The atrocities of the Holocaust told through a heart-warming love story was the premise of the Italian film Life is Beautiful (1997). It is a simple story but told with ingenuity, revolving around a mild-mannered Jewish librarian Guido who falls in love with a schoolteacher, content to live happily despite the political changes that are taking place around them. Their happiness, however, comes to an abrupt end when the couple is separated after Guido and their son Giosue are captured and taken to a concentration camp. In a bid to protect Giosue from the horrors of war, Guido uses his imagination to convince his son that their time in the camp is merely a game. Life is Beautiful appears to have largely been the effort of Roberto Benigni who co-wrote, directed and took on the lead role in the film. It is said that the film was inspired by Benigni’s own family history. Life is Beautiful received seven Oscar nominations including three for Benigni in the acting, directorial and writing categories. It won three Oscars include for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Original Dramatic Score while a very exuberant Benigni also claimed the Best Actor in a Leading Role prize. It, however, faced tough competition in the Best Picture category, going against two war epics, Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line. The inclusion of the two war dramas is said to have split the votes from the Academy, resulting in the unusual result of the romantic comedy Shakespeare in Love coming out on top, a genre not usually favoured in the Best Picture category. Though he received two Oscars that night, Benigni was not third time lucky, losing the Best Director Oscar to stalwart Steven Spielberg who directed Saving Private Ryan.
Letters from Iwo-Jima (Japanese):
Though filmed in Japanese, the film’s success could be attributed to the fact that it bears the stamp of one of the most powerful names in Hollywood, Clint Eastwood, who directed and produced Letters from Iwo-Jima (2006). The production credits also carry the name of another formidable name, Steven Spielberg. The film tells the story of The Battle of Iwo-Jima, told through the perspective of Japanese soldiers. It was, however, based on an interesting concept as Letters from Iwo-Jima was released concurrently with the English language Flags of our Feathers, which looks at the same historic event but this time told through the eyes of American soldiers. Letters from Iwo-Jima, which stars Ken Watanabe, had only a limited release in the United States, said to have been aimed at ensuring eligibility for Academy Award consideration. It received four Oscar nods including for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay but only took home one award that year, in the sound editing category.
A poignant depiction of an elderly couple who are faced with adversity when one of them suffers a debilitating stroke is the premise of the French language film Amour (2012). The film directed by Austrian Michael Heneke stars Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuel Riva who play retired music teachers who have spent much of their lives focused on their careers and devoted to each other. When Anne (Riva) suffers from the stroke, Georges (Trintignant) vows to keep her out of hospital, and ignores his own waning health in the process. Amour was awarded five Oscar nominations in all major categories. Heneke received a directorial nomination; Riva was a contender in the Best Actress category while it also entered in the race for the Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. It won one Oscar in 2013 in the Best Foreign Language Film, having lost out to Argo for Best Picture while Ang Lee was honoured for Life of Pi.
Based on the reviews dating back to 1969, when the film was released, American audiences weren’t very open to foreign films. “Mass movie audiences have been complaining about foreign films for years. Whether their displeasure is warranted or not is not important. It exists and thousands of people continually refuse to see one of those foreign things with sub-titles,” wrote critique Gene Siskel in the Chicago Tribune. He went on to cite the movie Z as a reason why such attitudes should be pushed aside. Directed by Costas-Gravas and starring a young Jean-Louis Trintignant, Z is a tale of political intrigue that revolves around the murder of a prominent leftist. Though released close to 50 years ago, Z is said to be as relevant today addressing the risks of going against the establishment. Siskel described it as being “a great film” as it represented not such much of a “political thriller” but that of a “political statement.” Z was nominated for five Oscars including for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. It won two, for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Film Editing. The top honours that year went to the risqué Midnight Cowboy which also earned John Schlesinger as