Academy Explains ‘Foreign’ Film Rules

<i> Arthur Hiller is president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He has directed 30 feature films</i> ;Counterpunch is a weekly feature designed to let readers respond to reviews or stories about entertainment and the arts

Henry Ong shows a not-uncommon confusion about several of our awards categories (“What Makes a Film ‘Foreign’?,” Calendar, Feb. 14), and I’m hoping that a few words of explanation will not only allay some of his darker suspicions, but will also prove helpful to other movie fans who’ve had questions about our procedures.

Ong seems to have made the understandable assumption that the best picture and best foreign language categories are mutually exclusive. They aren’t, though: Any film that has a seven-day theatrical run in Los Angeles County during the year is eligible for nominations in any of the standard categories for theatrical features.

“Farewell My Concubine,” which Ong fears may have been slighted by its competing in the foreign-language category, was in fact nominated by the academy’s cinematographer members as one of the five best-photographed films of the year.


Since foreign-language pictures can and do compete successfully with the English-language films, it may be asked whether there’s any point in having a foreign language film category at all. We think there is, and every overseas filmmaker I’ve ever talked to agrees with us.


For the foreign-language category, we waive Academy Awards Rule No. 1, so that the films entered need not have played in Los Angeles. That means that a “small” picture that has not been picked up for U.S. distribution may compete, and compete on an even footing, with better-known and better-financed films. And if that small picture from Iceland or Malaysia or Burkina Faso turns out to be a terrific one, its presence on our slate of foreign-language nominees may give people all around the world a chance to see it.

That’s the answer to the central issue that Ong raised, but I’ll also respond to a couple of others:

* In general, a film submitted as a foreign-language entry must have more than half of its dialogue in an official (non-English) language of the nation submitting the film. Nearly three-quarters of the conversation of “The Wedding Banquet” is in Chinese, although so much of the English dialogue occurs right at the beginning that Ong can be forgiven for his impression that it “use(d) mostly English dialogue.”

* Ong is correct that no Asian in an Asian-language picture has been nominated for an Oscar. A number of Asian or Asian American actors in English-language films have been nominated over the years, though, and two have even been voted the award. The most recent was Haing S. Ngor for “The Killing Fields.” (How many Anglos have won Taiwanese Golden Horse awards?)

* Finally, many academy members no doubt share Ong’s disappointment that we couldn’t find room on this year’s supporting actress list for Gong Li’s remarkable performance in “Concubine.”


I hope the gentleman will take some comfort, though, in the knowledge that at least she wasn’t a helpless spectator in the awards process. As a member in good standing of the academy’s Actors Branch, Gong Li was one of those who determined the nominations.