Bong Joon Ho’s movie Parasite made history at this year’s 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! ****
78th Academy Awards
Crash versus Tsotsi
My wife is not a film critic, but she does have a way with words, and this was her immediate assessment of Crash after we watched it a few nights ago:
“That was toilet.”
I’m inclined to agree with her. However, as a writer, it is my duty to elaborate upon her insightful three-word review — to the tune of, say, 1,400 words.
So: what makes Crash “toilet”?
Before we get to that, a quick summary for those of you who have wiped the film from your minds: Crash is an ensemble movie, written and directed by Paul Haggis, and set in Los Angeles, depicting stereotypical characters being racist until they’re not, or who aren’t racist until they tragically are. It’s also about interconnections, the kind that in real life make you say “Hey, small world,” but in cinema make you say, “Yeah yeah, likely story.”
To illustrate: Don Cheadle plays Detective Waters, who is the older brother of car-jacker Peter (Larenz Tate), who steals the car of the district attorney Rick Cabot (Brendan Fraser) and his wife Jean (Sandra Bullock). Jean, in a racist fervour, looks unfavourably upon the work of Hispanic locksmith Daniel (Michael Peña), who is subsequently abused by Persian shopkeeper Farhad (Shaun Toub). Meanwhile, racist cop Ryan (Matt Dillon) and his not-so racist partner Hansen (Ryan Phillippe) pull over black television director Cameron (Terrence Howard) as he is receiving fellatio from his wife Christine (Thandie Newton). Ryan abuses his power and gropes Christine, only to be the first police officer on the scene of a car crash later in the film in which Christine is stuck in an upturned and imminently exploding vehicle. And so on and so forth…
Crash is almost more about the interconnectivity of a city’s inhabitants than it is about racism — these connections are infused into its narrative structure and the frame upon which the film’s denouement hangs, with the discovery of yet another obfuscated relationship, between Det Waters and his carjacking brother.
As is evident form the above convoluted synopsis, the film is extremely plot-heavy, and feels more like an episode of a 90s television show, with short, snappy scenes that not so much develop the theme of racism as paste it all over the screen with tiresome regularity. That makes for ample examples of what makes this film “toilet”, but let’s take just the first sequence to examine.
Fair to say: this might be the worst opening to a film I’ve ever seen.
The movie opens with Don Cheadle gazing out of a car window, philosophising about the state of society in Los Angeles: “It’s the sense of touch,” Don profoundly remarks. “In any real city, you walk, you know? You brush past people, people bump into you. In LA, nobody touches you. We’re always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something.”
It’s a bold move to begin with this drivel. It’s the kind of banality that a philosophy undergrad would tear to shreds in their first term: people violently crash into each other because they miss bumping into each other in the street? Does that imply that the people of Los Angeles enjoy (or endure) no physical contact from friends, family, colleagues or foes? Does LA have an uncommonly high rate of traffic accidents? What are you talking about?
(Presumably there was an enormous spike in road accidents in 2020 when the sense of touch was OUTLAWED)
What’s more, Det Waters is dreamily pontificating about missing being touched while sat in a car next to his girlfriend, Ria, with whom he most heartily shares a sense of touch in the bedroom. The couple have just been rear-ended — according to Ria— with their car having spun twice as it careened off the road. Has he hit his head? Is that why he sounds like a stoned, lonely teenager working on a vapid poem?
Also consider how this is the line of dialogue that informs the title: Crash. It’s unusual to blurt out the meaning of your obscure title from the outset and forgo that cathartic nod of understanding from the audience later on. Examples include The Shining, which we learn is the supernatural sense that little Danny wields; Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind is a quote from an Alexander Pope poem that Mary recites; and The Silence Of The Lambs is, of course, in reference to Clarice’s haunting childhood memory of trying to save lambs from the slaughter. There are hundreds of others: Layer Cake, The Untouchables, Rain Man to name a handful.
To start a film with the title explanation is much less common and it belies a pride in the line. Haggis places it front and centre; the first words uttered on screen. I wanted to use a more incisive word than “pretentious”, but since that specifically means “attempting to impress by affecting greater merit than is actually possessed”, there likely isn’t one.
Stay with me, because this is only the first few minutes, and there’s so much more irritating nonsense to wade through before the first sequence ends.
Waters’ girlfriend, Ria, gets out of the car and walks across the street to address the woman who crashed into the back of them— an Asian woman as it turns out. Setting aside the lazy stereotype of Chinese people making bad drivers, the pair start racially abusing each other, with Ria ridiculing the Asian woman’s accent (“Blake lights?”). Somewhere in that malaise, we are supposed to catch that Ria is a detective — and one who responds to the public with racial slurs.
When Waters exits the vehicle, our expectations are tiresomely subverted once more as the camera pans back to reveal they have crashed precisely beside the site of the murder that Waters and Ria were on their way to investigate. No one asks Waters if he’s all right, despite being in a car that has spun off the road; it’s just detective time.
Thank goodness the scene ends when Waters sees the body — recognition icing his face — and we cut to a day ago. You forget when we return to this point in time that all the previous crashing nonsense has occurred, as Waters realises it’s his younger brother whose dead on the side of the road with a bullet in his belly.
So, to summarise the first sequence: it’s pretentious, trite, sanctimonious, ludicrous and irritating. Not a great start!
Bad to worse
The film does, however, have one further gear: repulsive. There are several offensive moments, but perhaps the most egregious is also the one that the filmmakers thought was their most powerful, and plastered it over the marketing materials. I’m referencing specifically the moment in which racist, misogynist cop Ryan drags from a burning car the black woman he sexually abused earlier, and is (in some unrecognisable universe) redeemed.
Christine cries into Ryan’s arms, and even looks back longingly at her abuser as she is dragged away from her hero to hospital. Even the rescue itself is sexually charged, as they breathe against each other’s faces, like an awkward flirtatious encounter, upside-down. It leaves you shaking with anger, and not intentionally on the part of Haggis, but because you feel used.
There’s so much of this film that gets under your skin, but it’s the undeservedly smug moralising that makes you want to rip your skin clean off. And much of its “profound” drama is artificially heightened by the soundtrack’s contemporarily fashionable use of the “vaguely ethnic wail” — pioneered by Hans Zimmer for the Gladiator soundtrack — which slaps a melancholic woman crooning in an unidentifiable language over a dreamy synth composition. The wail became something of a cliché after years of overuse, notably in The Passion Of The Christ and Troy, but at least their ancient subject matter lent itself more to this unspecified foreign din. In Crash, it’s most laughably employed when Sandra Bullock’s white racist Karen falls down some stairs and sprains her ankle (“Ohhaaeee shaaa me domu laaa”).
So, what makes Crash “toilet”, precisely? For starters, the film is so banal it can be summarily flushed from your mind — which is a relief. Having said that, once you’ve identified its repulsive whiff, it can linger terribly. And while Crash deals with an ugly yet ubiquitous human experience, no one wants to stare at a shit-filled bog for 112 minutes. I’d rather be in a car crash.
To win this International Oscar Showdown, then, all a film would need to do is not call your mum a twat. South African drama Tsotsi succeeds in this admirably.
Directed by Gavin Hood, Tsotsi is a simple story about a young gangster from the slums outside Johannesburg who steals a car and discovers a baby in the back seat. Too frightened of punishment to return the child, the hood attempts to rear it himself, whilst keeping it hidden from his friends and anyone who might rat him out to the police.
That synopsis makes it sound like a feel-good story — like Three Men & A Baby but in poverty rather than a ludicrously garish New York loft apartment. But the film is far from gratifying; indeed, it is relentlessly cruel.
The protagonist, who we learn later is named David, goes by the name “Tsotsi” — slang for “thug”. Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) leads a gang of small-time thieves, including long-time companion Aap, vicious dimwit Butcher, and educated alcoholic Boston. When Butcher murders a man during a mugging on the subway, Boston wants out, but Tsotsi beats his face in. The protagonist’s character is clearly defined: Tsotsi is a violent toe-rag.
This is a redemption story, but one with an extraordinarily long leap from heartless reprobate to reasonable human. Alas, the steppingstones provided actually hinder that process. For instance, we initially wonder why Tsotsi takes the baby from the back seat of the car, rather than dropping the child somewhere it can be recovered by the parents, or even leaving it in the abandoned vehicle. Perhaps there’s some paternal spark in him that can change his outlook on life? But his subsequent negligence for the infant is akin to child abuse, as he attempts to feed stale bread to the three-month-old, or pour condensed milk into its mouth direct from the sharp metal edges of a tin can.
Worse still, he leaves the poor child in a bag under his bed and goes out for the day, and returns to find the baby covered in ants, drawn to the sweetness of the milk he hadn’t wiped away.
My perspective may be coloured by having a child recently, but watching that — and the moment Tsotsi improvises a nappy out of newspaper — made me angry. These outrageous actions make empathy for the lead character increasingly implausible.
It’s not just his daddy day-care failures that undermine Tsotsi as a redeemable figure. Everything about him is degrading and pathetic, like when he trips over a crippled beggar’s feet, tries to intimidate him with steely eyes — only to be spat on — and then follows the beggar out of the station until he confronts him alone under a freeway overpass with a gun. Tsotsi is perennially cruel, but specifically to those weaker than he: an alcoholic friend, a baby, a disabled beggar. By this point in the film, you wonder why you’re supposed to care about him at all.
Once he realises he cannot take care of the ant-covered, shit-stinking baby, Tsotsi threatens a mother from the neighbourhood at gunpoint into feeding it, in an extremely tense and frustrating scene. On the one hand, we are relieved that the baby will get some proper sustenance, but on the other, you find yourself screaming at the screen, “Just take the baby back, you monster!”
Product of environment
There are flashbacks to help us forge a path to empathy, wherein we see David as a boy, watching his mother die of an unknown condition (though HIV/Aids is heavily implied throughout the film). We also see his abusive father deny him access to his mother and then drunkenly kick a dog to death. Providing probably the best shot of the film, we learn David ran away and lived with other children in a number of stacked pipe sections near an abandoned construction site.
That’s a terrible upbringing, but his past still fails to offset his appalling behaviour: leaving a baby in a paper bag under his bed for an entire day. I don’t know what trauma could excuse that psychopathic absence of empathy for a helpless baby.
The ending goes some way to absolving Tsotsi, when he returns the baby to the woman he shot, and surrenders, weeping, to the police. My favourite line-delivery in the film is from the mother, who pushes herself to the driveway gate in her wheelchair, and when her husband tries to take her back in to safety, she spits with venomous maternal fury: “Don’t you touch me!”
Tsotsi is a difficult watch, but not without its charms. Its well shot, if a little staged, and there are some great performances, notably from Terry Pheton as Miriam, the mother in the slums who offers to take the baby; and Jerry Mofokeng, who plays the beggar.
But it also has noticeably poor sound editing, using cheap stock sound effects for gunshots, ropey ADR, and unconvincing punch noises. Similarly, the lighting is often overly artificial — note when Tsotsi finds the baby in the car there are shadows cast by the infant’s hands against the car interior that have no right being there. Small niggles, in the grand scheme of things, but considering the predominantly high standard of filmmaking among the winners of these Oscar categories, they become quite glaring.
So, the question is: Did Tsotsi call my mum a twat? No. It did not. That makes it superior to its infamously nauseating competition, so it’s yet another win to the Internationals. Tsotsi is one of my least favourite winners of this category, but since it was up against the worst Best Picture of all time, lucky Tsotsi.
If only the same could be said for fellow Best Picture nominee Brokeback Mountain, with its tragic story of closeted homosexuality, toxic masculinity and forbidden love. The Academy just weren’t ready to award an LGBT film with Best Picture, and wouldn’t until Moonlight in 2017.
That means World cinema takes the largest lead so far in the series, reaching 6–9 over Hollywood.
Hopefully, next time will be a closer-run thing, with Clint Eastwood’s female boxing picture Million Dollar Baby in the red-white-and-blue corner (written coincidentally by Paul Haggis), up against Spanish euthanasia drama The Sea Inside in red-and-yellow, featuring subsequent Oscar winner Javier Bardem.
Also in this series
- 2019: Green Book vs Roma
- 2018: The Shape of Water vs A Fantastic Woman
- 2017: Moonlight vs The Salesman
- 2016: Spotlight vs Son of Saul
- 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
- 2005: Million Dollar Baby vs The Sea Inside