What Makes a Film ‘Foreign’?


As expected, “The Piano,” a film from New Zealand, has been nominated for an Oscar as best picture while “Farewell My Concubine,” a film from Hong Kong and co-winner with “The Piano” at the Cannes Film Festival, is relegated to a nomination from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences as best foreign language film.

Although the distinction is ostensibly based on language, there is something very insidious about categorizing movies in this manner. Generally, as long as a film contains English dialogue, the film is no longer considered “foreign” and it can rank right up there with Hollywood’s best work. Doesn’t this suggest that “The Piano” is not a foreign film but “Concubine” is?

But wait! In an added irony, the Academy chose to nominate “The Wedding Banquet” for best foreign language film. Didn’t this film use mostly English dialogue? Never mind that “Banquet’s” main characters are American (OK, so the protagonist is a naturalized American and the female lead an “illegal” immigrant). The story takes place in New York, and the protagonist’s lover is a white American male. (I guess it could be argued that “Banquet” was made with Taiwanese money. But wasn’t “The Piano” financed with French francs?)


I must conclude that in Hollywood anything Anglo is considered non-”foreign” while anything non-Anglo is “foreign.”

I am disappointed--though not surprised--that the Academy did not see fit to nominate Gong Li (from “Concubine”) for best supporting actress. The New York Film Critics were alone among various film awards groups in picking her as best supporting actress. No Asian actor in a “foreign language” picture has ever been nominated for an acting award by the Academy. European (read Anglo ) actors have fared better (Sophia Loren won an Oscar; Marcello Mastrioanni, Isabelle Adjani, Catherine Deneuve, Gerard Depardieu have been nominated). Will Hollywood one day extend its vision to include non-Anglo actors?

I know I run the risk of being criticized for political correctness. All I know is any segregation on racial lines is divisive and artificial. “Foreign” is such an ugly word anyway. The Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., which also nominated “The Wedding Banquet” in its best foreign language film category, would be wise to change its name to the Hollywood International Press--wouldn’t that make it HIP? And all our award givers should include meritorious works without artificially segregating films on the basis of what is and what isn’t foreign.

But if we must make the distinction, take a hint from the Independent Spirit Awards. This group did not use language as its criterion and instead nominated “The Wedding Banquet” for best feature, and named “The Piano” (New Zealand), “Orlando” (Britain) and “Naked” (Britain) as foreign film nominees.