Bong Joon Ho’s movie Parasite made history at the 2020 Academy Awards, becoming the first non-English-language film to win Best Picture.
In this series, in reverse chronological order, I compare previous years’ Best Picture and Best International Feature to see how many other foreign-language films ought to have been given the top gong.
**** This article contains spoilers! ****
The 1960s were something of a heyday for the American musical. Four singing and hoofing movies won the Best Picture Oscar during the decade, including two of the most enduring examples of the genre: West Side Story and The Sound of Music. But, after Oliver! won in 1969, no musical would take the top gong for 34 years.
Arguably, tastes were changing, as the world changed. Oliver! was released in 1968, a year that saw the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Dr Martin Luther King, as well as violent civil unrest in the US, and renewed opposition to the Vietnam war. Concurrently, cinema began its shift into the gritty, dark and ethically ambiguous era of the 1970s.
So, for the Academy in 1969 to hand its most prestigious award to a twee British singalong in the midst of such turmoil may have left many with a bad taste in the mouth. There was certainly a predominant shift in tone for winning movies over the following decades, with films like The Sting and Annie Hall providing brief moments of light relief amid the war movies and violent gangster pictures.
Three decades later, (and one year after the cultural phenomenon of Moulin Rouge! revivified the medium), Chicago re-established the musical’s Oscar-winning credentials by taking home Best Picture.
However, by unfortunate happenstance, the 2003 awards were held four days after American forces invaded Iraq, in George W Bush’s ill-fated “war on terror”. Here again was a politically charged awards ceremony — during which left-wing documentarian Michael Moore got booed off the stage for denouncing the invasion — and the Best Picture award was given to another sensationalised musical romp.
Coincidentally, no musical has won the award since — apart from La La Land, which won for about 6 minutes in an almighty cock-up in 2017.
All that jazz
Set during the Jazz Age, Chicago pits two murderesses on death row against each other in a battle for fame and freedom, with a sleaze-ball lawyer their ticket to the big time. But capturing the adoration of the public through the courts turns out to be much easier than it is enduring.
Roxie Hart (Renee Zelwegger) is duped into bed by a furniture salesman pretending to be a show producer (Dominic West). After his (needlessly aggressive) post-coital admission of duality, Roxie pulls a gun and shoots him twice in the chest. Briefly defended by her doting, dimwit husband Amos (John C Riley), Roxie is sent to prison to await trail.
Locked up with Roxie is Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who was one half of a double-act brought abruptly to an end when Velma (apparently) killed her dance partner (and sister) for sleeping with her husband. Velma and Roxie vie for the attention of Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), a scumbag lawyer who whips his cases into a media frenzy and invariably gets cases thrown out by concocting dubious melodramatic narratives and planting tampered evidence.
I’ve no business with show business
I’m not an enormous fan of musical theatre; the medium is unsuited to subtlety, complexity or ambiguity. Indeed, having forty athletic performers leap over each other in a symbolic establishment of the protagonist’s innermost desires lends itself rather more to kitsch, melodrama and toe-tapping zeal. I’m not deriding these qualities, mind; it’s just not my bag.
Musical films, on the other hand, I am slightly more engaged with, because the near-unlimited scope for a camera’s placement can at least infuse other aspects into the storytelling. A greater sense of space can be established using breathtaking vistas or genuinely lived-in spaces. At the same time, some semblance of nuance can be wrought with close-ups for actors, while intelligent sound design negates the need for spit-flecked projection to the cheap seats. What is lost, of course, is the skin-tingling excitement of a live performance.
That’s why I find the movie Chicago so baffling. All the musical numbers are performed as though on a stage, replete with spotlights and stage props. Though the camera does move, it either glides slowly through the stage’s audience, drifting behind the blurred tops of heads, or it cuts rapidly between shots upon the stage itself. In essence, it limits itself to a stage production, while sacrificing the blood-pumping benefits of actually being there.
It’s also extremely song-heavy, with often only a few lines of dialogue connecting one musical number with the next. The performances therefore have no room for depth — not that the script affords any. The plot — as with many musicals — is merely a conveyor, to move the players promptly to the next beat in the story.
But that’s the point! — I hear the fans cry. Fair enough! If you like the songs, you’ll certainly get your money’s worth, as there’s a lot of them, and they’re effectively choreographed. If you like your cinema like you like your musical theatre, you’re in for a winner: everything is larger than life; a bouncy, ballsy, shouty procession of leg-flashing, chest-stroking, somersaulting bombast. Hooray!
It doesn’t make you feel much of anything, though. When characters are this shallow and singularly driven, there’s little room for empathy. Everyone is a cynical cad, or a despicable moll, or an unrepentant murderer. That is, apart from Amos, whose imbecilic devotion to his cheating wife teeters over from sympathetic to just pathetic. His character is so wet, he practically leaves a puddle in every scene.
The performances are intentionally hammy, while the script’s shortcomings are disguised by tap-dancing cutaways, or (my most detested musical trope) overlaying one character’s monologue with another character warbling in between. It reminds me of GCSE drama.
But these are criticisms from which a musical is immune — it’s supposed to be hammy, and gaudy, and unrealistic! Those are good things! Well, toots, I’m afraid I just don’t dig the razzle dazzle.
This is Africa
The international film up against Chicago couldn’t be more different. The German winner, Nowhere In Africa, returns this category once more to the familiar spectre of the Nazis — though from afar. In it, a family of German Jews flee the country to work as farmhands in British-controlled Kenya. Living in exile, they struggle to keep the family together, while eking out a living.
The film begins with Walter (Merab Ninidze) already in Kenya — sick with malaria, and being nursed back to health by the farm’s cook, Owuor. Once recovered, Walter urgently writes to his wife Jettel (Juliane Köhler) asking her to join him on the first boat out of Germany, with instructions not to tell anyone where she’s going, or bring too much money, lest the Nazis confiscate it.
But, for Jettel, giving up their middle-class life in Germany to manage a farm in the harsh Kenyan wilderness is quite the culture shock. She refuses to accept they will live there for long — symbolised by her good china staying packed away — and tries to keep her daughter Regina from mixing with the locals.
There are many elements to this film, but its acknowledgement and handling of racism is particularly interesting. Despite having been driven from her country specifically due to her race, Jettel is racist towards, and fearful of, the black population she finds herself among. She is curt with Owuor, and forbids Regina to play with the local children. Her behaviour is thrown into sharp relief when Walter accuses her of treating their black neighbours in much the same way the Nazis treated Jews. Calling a Jew a Nazi is about as insulting as you can be.
Regardless, Jettel finds it hard to adjust, while young Regina adapts remarkably well, learning the language and taking an interest in the culture. Indeed, there is a satisfying moment later in the film when Regina returns from boarding school as a teen, and her Kenyan friend teases her about her clothes. She says she can’t go topless like the other African women any more — and we fear she is adopting the prejudices of her mother. Thankfully, she is teasing back, and soon bares her back to go climb trees with him.
The movie has an intimidating runtime for a drama of this type, but the pacing is remarkably brisk, helped on its way by periodic news from Germany, the temporary internment of all the German men in the country at the outset of war, and Jettel and Walter’s gradually collapsing marriage.
But the length of the film also helps sell its structural narrative conceit; much like The Sea Inside, characters begin the film with one opinion, and by the end have swapped completely. In the case of Nowhere In Africa, we see Jettel desperate to go back to Germany when she initially arrives, with Walter insisting they stay; and by the end of the film Jettel wants to remain in Kenya, while Walter insists they return. It’s a simple storytelling technique, but it’s effective (and not easy to pull off).
Speaking of returning to Germany, I had never contemplated, until watching this film, what it must have been like for German Jewish refugees to consider returning home. In this matter, the film provides a fresh perspective — usually, films that tackle the Holocaust place it front and centre (like Son Of Saul, or The Counterfeiters, to name a few from this series alone). This was the first time it had occurred to me how frightening it must have been for refugees to return to live among neighbours who so recently may have sold them out to the Gestapo.
The film is shot gloriously (though with a perplexing propensity for the snap zoom, like some 1970s Hong Kong drama), and the African vistas are often breathtaking. There is admittedly some heavy-handed colour grading at the start to differentiate scenes in Germany (blue = cold) and those in Africa (orange = hot), but there’s also some great dolly shots that keep the film feeling dynamic.
As for the story, its often poignant, moving and dramatically energetic, and the performances are pitch perfect across the board. The casting is also impressive, with the two actors playing Regina as child and teen extremely well suited to each other (not quite as natural as the casting in Moonlight, but damn close). I am discounting, though, all the British characters, who sound like people plucked off the street and told to repeat a line.
I particularly liked Owuor’s character, played by the late Sidede Onyulo, who won Best Supporting Actor for the role at the Dublin Film Festival. His relationship with Regina is as natural as his relaxed demeanour, and when the family have to abruptly leave, Owuor’s surprise arrival later is a supreme relief, like the cavalry arriving over the crest of a hill.
Unlike many “hired help” in the movies — too often underdeveloped and two dimensional — we learn of Owuor’s family, witness his lifestyle, and believe his affection for Regina. He also helps illustrate the vast differences between his and the Redlich family’s cultures. Early in the film, Jettel must fetch water for their vegetable garden, and Owuor directs her to where the women fetch it. When she asks for his help to carry the jars, he initially refuses, as it is women’s work. Jettel insists, and Owuor acquiesces, to the whooping jeers of all the women in the community. His reputation is tarnished by (what the west might consider) gallantry.
If I have a criticism, it’s that the film does not reflect particularly on the centuries of colonialism that exploited Africa. Rather, it is a thank you to Kenya from the author of the autobiography on which it is based, Stefanie Zweig. The country saved their lives, and the gratitude is palpable — culminating in a symbol of African generosity as the film’s final scene. Nevertheless, I’m sure a much more scathing interpretation might be wrought from an anti-imperial viewpoint.
It’s not a tricky one, this. You may love Chicago, and I can understand why — it’s goofy fun, dressed up as sexy — but it does nothing for me. The jokes don’t land, the songs are too long, and the script is so hammy you could serve it with egg and chips. But boy, can those dames sing!
Conversely, Nowhere In Africa is a worthy winner, filled with complex characters, believable story arcs, gorgeous cinematography, and compelling drama. It’s a love letter to a country, and though myopic in regard to the horrors of the British Empire, the apparent affection for Kenya and its people is abundant.
So that’s yet another win for the international film community. When I began this series, I expected to see many victories for the foreign-language films, but to extend their lead to 6–11 is really astonishing.
Next time, it’s the second of Russell Crowe’s consecutive Best Picture wins, A Beautiful Mind, up against a war drama from Bosnia & Herzegovina, No Man’s Land. Will Hollywood have the smarts to close the gap?
Nowhere In Africa
Also in this series
- 2019: Green Book vs Roma
- 2018: The Shape of Water vs A Fantastic Woman
- 2016: Spotlight vs Son of Saul
- 2017: Moonlight vs The Salesman
- 2015: Birdman vs Ida
- 2014: 12 Years A Slave vs The Great Beauty
- 2013: Argo vs Amour
- 2012: The Artist vs A Separation
- 2011: The King’s Speech vs In A Better World
- 2010: The Hurt Locker vs The Secret In Their Eyes
- 2009: Slumdog Millionaire vs Departures
- 2008: No Country For Old Men vs The Counterfeiters
- 2007: The Departed vs The Lives Of Others
- 2006: Crash vs Tsotsi
- 2005: Million Dollar Baby vs The Sea Inside
- 2004: The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King vs The Barbarian Invasions
- 2002: A Beautiful Mind vs No Man’s Land