When Bong Joon-ho was asked in 2019 how he felt about the fact that, prior to Parasite’s Oscar blitz, a Korean film had never been nominated for an Academy Award, he deemed the decades-long omission “a little strange” but “not a big deal.” After all, unlike Cannes or Venice, the Oscars are not usually an international affair. “They’re very local,” he told New York Magazine.
The remark quickly went viral; it sounded like a charming bit of heresy. The most famous prizes in cinema, local? But, of course, Bong was right. In 94 years of Oscars history, only 12 non-English language films have been nominated for Best Picture. This means that Drive My Car, the only such movie nominated in the category this year, and the first ever Best Picture nominee from Japan, is already a history-maker, and would earn even more recognition should it win the top prize. It’s great to see the Oscars making steps towards reflecting the full scope of the movie world—but there’s still a ton of work to be done.
Drive My Car is based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, and is directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi. It tells the story of a widowed actor and theater director (Hidetoshi Nishijimai) who, still wracked with grief and anger at his beloved, unfaithful and now-departed wife, must stage his take on Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” in a new city. He’s reluctantly paired with a young woman (Tôko Miura) who serves as his chauffeur (it’s a liability thing) as he works on the play, and who is grieving a loss of her own. Together, they develop an unlikely bond.
The film won Best Screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival, Best Foreign Language Film at the (much diminished) Golden Globe Awards, and practically swept the Best Picture categories at the film critics awards. But despite the accolades it’s already earned, the Oscars’ historic reluctance to recognize global filmmaking means that Drive My Car is still an underdog. Just look at what one anonymous Academy member told The Hollywood Reporter of the film’s Best Picture nomination: “Drive My Car is not a bad movie, but it belongs in the international feature category, not here, just like Parasite did.”
That anonymous voter was probably pleased to see that, in addition to its Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay nods, Drive My Car is nominated for Best International Feature. Though, the category has been criticized for years. It’s supposed to represent the Oscar’s attempt to be less “local” (hence the 2019 name change from “Best Foreign Language Film”), but instead it isolates international cinema in one five-entry category. Films in this category are submitted for nomination consideration by official bodies in each nation, and each country can only submit one movie per year, no matter how many fantastic features they happened to have produced. Even more troublingly, the process opens the door to state interference. In countries where artists who run afoul of the government can wind up facing state suppression, it’s pretty certain that politically daring movies won’t be selected for Oscars consideration.
And like so many odd Oscars rules, the guidelines around Best International Feature can just seem illogical. Films nominated in the category must be primarily in a non-English language. In 2019, this meant that the Nigerian movie Lionheart was disqualified from consideration because it was largely in English. What the Academy blatantly missed is that English is Nigeria’s official language, and the Oscars was essentially punishing the nation for being colonized.
Then there’s the fact that Drive My Car, like Parasite before it, hasn’t been nominated in any of the acting categories, despite the fantastic performances the stars of both films produced. Multiple actors have received nominations for non-English films in recent years, but they’ve generally appeared movies whose “foreignness” seems to be mitigated in some way: Yalitza Aparicio was nominated for Best Actress for Roma, a film directed by Alfonso Cuarón, who was already well-known to American audiences for his movies like Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Gravity, and last year, Youn Yoh-jung won Best Supporting Actress for her role in Minari, which is an American film starring a well-known Korean-American actor (Steven Yuen). Penelope Cruz is a Best Actress nominee this year for Pedro Almódovar’s Spanish-language film Parallel Mothers, but of course, she’s long been a household name in the US.
Still, their nominations, like Drive My Car’s Best Picture nod, are a good thing. Global films may only make up a tiny fraction of the categories hundreds of nominees over the years, but there’s been an upward trend: A non-English language movie has been nominated for Best Picture in every year since 2018. The new members the Academy has added in recent years, very many of whom aren’t from the US, is likely a big reason for the progress that’s been made. The entertainment world is increasingly interconnected, and at least by a few measures, the Oscars are—slowly—catching up.