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! ****
I’ll introduce this International Oscar Showdown just as Barbara Streisand introduced the nominees for Best Director in 2010, by mentioning the fact that Kathryn Bigelow would become the first woman in Oscars history to win Best Director. You may infer from my tone (and Barbara’s on the night of the awards) that this was an achievement ludicrously long in the waiting.
However, the rest of this review will adopt the demeanour of a triumphant Bigelow, who didn’t mention her sex in either her acceptance speech for Best Director or Best Picture.
Indeed, to call it an “achievement” at all serves to paint one woman as remarkable, rather than accurately depicting the patriarchal system in which a woman winning is so rare as inherently sexist.
So let’s just talk about the movies.
Hurt me plenty
The Hurt Locker is a post-invasion Iraq War movie, and one that unconventionally focuses on the exploits of bomb-disposal specialists. The story is propelled by a series of operations to deal with various improvised explosive devices (IED) – from a car bomb to a suicide vest, via the largely implausible spectacle of a “body bomb” surgically implanted into the corpse of a boy.
Where the protagonist of a modern warfare movie is usually a grunt, the emphasis on bomb disposal is appropriate for the setting; the Iraq War entailed a campaign of urban combat between occupying coalition forces and the desperate efforts of an underequipped guerrilla force, using whatever arms they could muster.
It would be remiss not to stress this narrative choice: the range of rudimentary IEDs depicted in the film – and their fearsome explosive potency – casts a light on the chaotic nature of the conflict. After the brief and overwhelming invasion appeared to result in US victory within a fortnight, the ensuing occupation was beset by an intentionally incoherent and necessarily opportunistic enemy, who rarely revealed themselves as obvious combatants, preferring to blend into the population.
This lack of clear targets left the occupying forces constantly at odds with their purported objective to liberate the local population from the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s scattered military. How do you fight an enemy you cannot identify?
Hiding in plain sight
The intensity in the film is often drawn from this hidden insurgency, and how, for American troops cleaning up dangerous ordnance, locals leaning out of their apartment windows to watch was as threatening a presence as would be tanks on the horizon. Similarly, the friendship that Jeremy Renner’s character — the combat-addicted Sergeant James — forms with a kid hawking DVDs near the base is inherently tense, so muddied are the lines between friend and foe.
However, the central theme in The Hurt Locker is not this frightening obfuscation of conventional battle lines, but the intoxication of warfare among members of the military. As the title sequence puts it: “War is a drug”.
When the team leader of an ordnance disposal unit is killed in action (cleverly dispatching Hollywood star Guy Pearce and thus telling the audience no one is safe in this film), his replacement is reckless adrenaline junkie James. We immediately get a sense of his character when he asks to remove the protective boards from his barracks window, preferring sunshine to keeping out mortar shrapnel.
Tension mounts between James and his two support team members: uptight and officious Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), and troubled, philosophical Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). However, rather predictably, the trio form bonds of grudging respect, despite James’s antics directly endangering the others on several occasions. Indeed, much of the criticism directed at the film from Iraq War veterans is how preposterous it would be to have such an irresponsible maverick leading a unit.
It’s a peculiarly episodic screenplay, with seven separate operations, all with a very slightly different emphasis on tone and suspense, but essentially propelling the story forward by showing James’s recklessness, or Sanborn’s mounting frustration with his unruly team leader. Sanborn even considers detonating an explosive while James returns to retrieve his gloves from the blast site, knowing it could easily be written off as an accident. Eldridge is shocked, but not enough to admonish Sanborn for contemplating the murder of a squad member.
With its frenetic cinematography using handheld cameras, the movie is perpetually tense — and besides, watching a man in a giant padded suit fiddle with a bomb with his bare fingers is alone enough to conjure the heeby-jeebies.
The ending is an odd one — skip this paragraph if you haven’t seen it — because it seems to disregard the negligent actions of its protagonist in order to frame his return to Iraq as heroic, complete with thrashing metal as James strides back into the fray. It dwells very little on the emotional trauma inflicted upon his girlfriend, nor the prospect of his son growing up without a father, or the danger that his impulsive nature places upon his squad mates — despite taking great lengths to establish James’s ruinous addiction to combat. With an adjustment to the soundtrack, and perhaps a shift in tone in the editing, I feel this insinuation could have been avoided, but as it is, I found it disappointingly “patriotic” — in the worst sense of the word.
Eyes on the prize
The foreign-language film up against The Hurt Locker is Argentinian crime drama The Secret In Their Eyes. On the face of it, the film is a commercial thriller, full of burning injustice and forbidden romance, not to mention twists. A retired judiciary agent is writing a novel about a case from the1970s that never sat right with him, and, between flashbacks of the investigation and his later authorial ponderings, he uncovers a horrifying reality. It’s like Atonement meets The Usual Suspects, in Spanish.
But there’s a subtlety to this film that will be lost on audiences outside Argentina, where its subtext and political metaphor would not go unmissed. More on that later…
There’s a lot of plot to this film, so I’ll try to break it down as succinctly as I can. Benjamin Esposito is writing a novel about the case he has obsessed over for the last two and a half decades: the brutal rape and murder of a young woman. He recalls, in flashback, how the crime was pinned on two construction workers who were beaten into signing a confession at the behest of Esposito’s corrupt rival in court, Romano.
When Esposito follows a hunch based on photographs of the young woman being stared at by a boy from her hometown, Esposito and his partner apprehend the suspect at a football stadium, and with the help of the department chief, Irene Menéndez-Hastings, goad a confession out of the insecure misogynist.
However, with the government in the 70s swinging drastically to the right, and corruption rampant in the courts, the murderer, Gómez, is released by Romano. To add insult to injury, Gómez is employed as a clandestine agent of the ruling party — essentially a hitman. Esposito discovers this when the murdered girl’s husband calls him to say he has seen the killer standing proudly behind the newly appointed president, Isabel Perón, on television.
When Esposito finds in his apartment his partner has been murdered, he flees Buenos Aires and lives in the countryside for a decade, fearing the wrath of the accused. He only returns in 1999 when the political turmoil has subsided, and the first draft of his novel is finished. Besides attempting to rekindle his fruitless love affair with Irene, he manages to track down the husband of the murdered woman, and discovers he has taken the law into his own hands, where justice had been denied him.
The beautiful game
The film is a little slow in the first half, but the keystone of the film is a truly remarkable moment of cinema: once Esposito and his drunken partner Sandóval establish from letters written by Gómez that he is a football fan, they begin attending matches at Racing’s stadium. There is an astonishing one-shot take in which the camera flies towards the floodlit stadium, swoops over the pitch and follows the attacking play of one of the teams, before settling on Esposito in a fervent crowd of supporters.
Without cuts, Esposito and Sandóval spot the suspect, give chase through the crowd and the staircases behind the stands, before Gómez injures himself leaping from a window and stumbles onto the pitch, only to be apprehended by police, his face planted into the turf as the crowd jeers. It is an incredible sequence, and quite unexpected in a film that is otherwise quite pedestrian in its staging.
Love is blind
Besides the investigation in the 1970s, the main sub-plot of the film is the unfulfilled romance between Esposito and his boss Irene. It’s quite melodramatic — a forbidden love based on differing social class, debilitating shyness and unfortunate timing — but I didn’t find it particularly convincing, and perhaps a little tacked on for the sake of an extra narrative thread.
What makes the film interesting, after some research, is how the director created a film that would translate well internationally, while having something more to say to its domestic audience. There is a reason the film is predominantly set in 1974, beginning within a fortnight of president Juan Perón’s death. For Argentinians, this was a pivotal moment in the country’s modern history, when Péron’s successor, his grieving widow Isabel, rose to power and later signed the Anti-Terrorism Act that instigated the country’s infamous Dirty War. During this period, 30,000 leftist activists, educators, artists and writers disappeared, murdered by right-wing death squads with extrajudicial impunity.
It’s also significant that the “present” in the film takes place in 2000, despite being made much later in the decade. Around this time, Argentina was beginning to wrestle with its past, specifically the pardons granted by president Carlos Menem in the late 80s to those accused of human rights abuses. Between 1998 and 2005, many of these pardons were overturned. Just as Argentinians dug up the past to confront it, so too does Esposito, reprising a case to redress the injustice.
There’s further moments of political allegory and reference, like the moment Sandóval gets in a bar fight with his erstwhile friends, calling them fascists. The country was breaking apart, with violent rifts between left and right.
It’s one of the reasons the American remake of the film in 2015, starring Julia Roberts, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Nicole Kidman, was widely panned — remove the context, the cultural implications, the subtlety, and you’re left with a largely sub-par commercial thriller.
This has been one of the hardest showdowns I’ve adjudicated so far, as both films richly deserve their accolades, yet I would give neither five stars.
In regards to The Hurt Locker, there is nothing I find less appealing than American patriotism, especially in light of its disastrous foreign policy in recent history, so casting the film as a tale of heroism when it purports to be a damning indictment of a suicidal thrill-seeker is most irksome.
The poster’s tagline is practically the opposite of what I thought the film set out to say: “You don’t have to be a hero to do this job. But it helps.” Oh, and a dangerous maverick who would rather be shot at than look after his child.
On the other hand, The Secret In Their Eyes has a lot going for it, but too often feels like a 1990s run-of-the-mill thriller with a big gothic ending. I enjoyed it very much — I recommend watching it — but does it deserve to win this showdown?
It’s close, but no. The Hurt Locker, despite its muddled message, is an extremely suspenseful and entertaining film, and while it points at heroism, the viewer gleans something more real: the desparate hollowness that toxic masculinity caves out of young men’s minds.
Incredible to see such a close-run Showdown end up tying the series upon its tenth iteration! Hollywood closes the gap and ends the decade on 5–5 with the international filmmakers.
Exciting times ahead as we enter the 2000s, which will feature blockbuster epics like Gladiator, Lord of the Rings: The Third One, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but also the critic’s pariah, Crash. I’m also very excited to review No Man’s Land, the Bosnia & Herzegovina war film about being stuck on a landmine.
First, though, I’ll be comparing Slumdog Millionarie with Departures, the only movie to win Best Foreign-Language film for Japan since the 1950s!
The Hurt Locker
The Secret In Their Eyes
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
- 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