Wednesday, December 5, 2018

2019 Oscar Contenders: Asia and the Middle East

Here are the 22 films from Asia and the Middle East.

With the exception of some of the Middle Eastern countries, the Asian countries have mostly done poorly in recent years. Having seen 12 of the 22 submissions from the group this year, I can see why….Though I love Asian cinema, most of the submitted films have been disappointing. 

OH GOD, NO….

22. VIETNAM- "The Tailor"
21. PALESTINE- “Ghost Hunting”
20. HONG KONG- “Operation Red Sea”
19. TAIWAN- “The Great Buddha +”
18. SINGAPORE- “Buffalo Boys”

                VIETNAM's frothy time-travel comedy “The Tailor” is by no means the worst movie on the list; it’s a perfectly entertaining film filled with some really fun pop musical numbers. But Oscar voters will not be impressed by this mash-up of “Back to the Future” and “The Devil Wears Prada” (with one scene seemingly lifted directly from the Meryl Streep film). “The Tailor” is pure popular entertainment. The same goes for “Operation Red Sea” (HONG KONG), an overlong hyper-nationalistic action movie about the Chinese Navy trying to save Chinese hostages in an imaginary Middle Eastern country (but based on Yemen). The VFX and action scenes are impressive but the characters are interchangeable, the plot is basically a constant series of attacks and explosions, and the film literally ends with a warning by the Chinese military to the USA. It was a weak year, but this still an odd choice for Hong Kong.
                Taiwan and Palestine have both gone with the polar opposite of popular entertainment. Experimental documentary “Ghost Hunting” (PALESTINE) is an attempt by director Raed Andoni to recreate the experiences of Palestinian prisoners who were arrested and tortured by the Israeli military. More like a group therapy session than a movie, the directors uses former prisoners to act out the roles. I hope the exercise was cathartic to all those involved, but the film is a slog to get through and I was bothered that there was never any mention of why they were imprisoned. Were they political prisoners? Were they involved in violent attacks against Israeli civilians? Seems like a glaring error for a documentary. Turning to TAIWAN, I had high hopes for supposed B&W comedy “The Great Buddha” ….but I really hated this film about two night watchmen who uncover a murder mystery by watching surveillance videos. Most of the film is mind-numbingly dull....kind of like watching surveillance videos....with annoying narration by the director, “Our Town” style.
               I've seen the four previous films but I haven’t managed to see SINGAPORE's “Buffalo Boys”, one of two Indonesian-language revenge westerns competing this year (see INDONESIA). I’m told it’s an entertaining but fairly vapid action movie set in 19th century Java…very much a pretty “genre” pic and unlikely to impress the Oscar committee. I hope to see it when it plays VOD in January. 

ONLY SLIGHTLY BETTER


17. NEPAL- “Panchayat”
16. BANGLADESH- “No Bed of Roses”
15. INDIA- “Village Rock Stars”
14. IRAQ- “The Journey”
13. CHINA- “Hidden Man”

INDIA's Assamese-language “Village Rockstars” is a beautifully filmed coming-of-age story about village children that showcases the region’s natural beauty. BANGLADESH's “No Bed of Roses” stars acclaimed Bollywood/Hollywood actor Irffan Khan as a writer whose loving relationship with his daughter is destroyed when he leaves her mother for her classmate. Unfortunately, both films are also painfully slow and I didn't enjoy watching either one. As one critics says about “Rockstars”, “One feels moved more by the natural characters — trees, rivers and fields — than the flesh and blood ones”. Though both films are under 90 minutes, I looked at my watch constantly. "Rockstars" cinematic value is purely cultural. It’s difficult to see “Panchayat” from neighboring NEPAL doing much better. I haven’t been able to see it, but this drama about a young girl coming of age in the turbulent 1970s has no buzz or international visibility. 
               As for CHINA, they’ve made a very poor choice. “Hidden Man”, a light action drama set in the 1930s, was foolishly chosen over auteur Zhang Yimou’s “Shadow”, China’s best chance for an Oscar nomination in years. A mainstream spy movie, reviews for “Hidden Man” have been tepid with most saying that the film is entertaining but muddled and flawed. It couldn’t even manage a Best Picture nomination at the Golden Horse Awards. I had high hopes for suicide bomber drama “The Journey” from IRAQ, which follows a number of characters in a train station minutes before a female bomber blows herself up. It’s hard to root against a film made under such difficult conditions (also see Yemen below) but “The Journey” suffers from a weak screenplay that fails to develop interesting characters or to make use of its dramatic premise. It’s not a bad film, but it’s not the Oscar contender I hoped for. 

MIDDLE OF THE PACK
12. THAILAND- “Malila, The Farewell Flower”
11. PHILIPPINES- “Signal Rock”
10. YEMEN- “10 Days Before the Wedding”
9. PAKISTAN- “Cake”

Though we are halfway up the list, none of these Asian films have any chance at a nomination...but they will represent their countries well. The Philippines and Thailand have been submitting for decades (the Pinoys since 1956 and the Thai since 1984) without luck and these two dramas are very low-key. LGBT drama "Malila: The Farewell Flower" from THAILAND combines Buddhist meditation, gay sex, grossly realistic dead bodies, and the beautiful Thai countryside in a very slow drama where the story is secondary to the symbolism. "Signal Rock", from the PHILIPPINES, is about a remote community where people have to climb a tall rock to get cell-phone reception. Reviews have been fine, but it's not much different from the other Filipino "poverty porn" indie features the country sends year after year. 

PAKISTAN's family drama "Cake" is said to be one of the best films to come out of the country in years and, along with feminist drama "Motorcycle Girl", the hallmark of a new breed of quality drama, instead of the usual shoot-em-up action movies and Bollywood-style musicals. I've heard great things from friends in Pakistan but I fear the Academy will merely see this as a well-done soap opera. Last but not least is war-torn YEMEN, the biggest surprise on the Oscar longlist. Made amidst the world's deadliest civil war, it still managed to pack makeshift cinemas (the have no functioning movie theatres so they used wedding halls) for months in the city of Aden. If they gave Oscars for backstories, this drama about a young couple trying to keep their wedding on track despite the bombings and the civil war would win hands-down. It has the highest IMDB rating of all 87 films (though that's probably inflated) and represents the work of a brave new filmmaker.

A RESPECTABLE FINISH


8. CAMBODIA- “Graves Without A Name”
7. INDONESIA- “Marlina the Murderer, in Four Acts”
6. AFGHANISTAN- “Rona, Azim’s Mother”

These three films will likely find some fans. I personally loved "Marlina the Murderer", a darkly comic feminist revenge thriller from INDONESIA. Imagine "Kill Bill" starring a mild-mannered widow and put her on an island and you've got an idea of what Marlina is like. It's very entertaining but not everybody likes it. As for CAMBODIA, they're trying to repeat Rithy Panh's surprise nomination for "The Missing Picture" with his latest documentary "Graves Without A Name". Both films focus on similar themes, detailing the very personal stories of the director and his family as they pursue the impossible task of finding the graves of relatives killed in the 1975-1979 Khmer Rouge genocide. I've never understood how the didactic "Missing Picture" scored a nomination but the reception for "Graves" (which has Asia's lowest IMDB rating- a 6.0) and its droning philosophical narration has been quieter and lightning is unlikely to strike twice. Lastly, we have AFGHANISTAN and "Rona, Azim's Mother". For years now, the Afghans have been sending great movies in the style of Iran's best arthouse cinema. "Rona"premiered in Busan and has gotten warm reviews for its story of an Afghan refugee in Iran and his desperate efforts to take care of his aging mother. Afghanistan will once again do well in the overall rankings but fail to be nominated. 

UNLIKELY DARK HORSES


5. IRAN- “No Date, No Signature”
4. ISRAEL- “The Cakemaker”
3. KOREA- “Burning”


I've managed to see all three of these dark horses. Let's look at the pros and cons:

 IRAN
The story: "A Separation" as if it was a medical drama and mystery. A coroner gets into a minor traffic accident with a poor family. The next day the little boy appears at the morgue, dead of uncertain causes. 
Pros: Reviews have been surprisingly strong. The style is very much in the mold of "A Separation" as the story gets revealed bit-by-bit and, the moral dilemmas pile up and, as in life, you're never quite sure when you're getting the full story. 
Cons: It's quite a small film and it may have trouble being remembered. The lead character doesn't have quite the impact of the couple in "A Separation". 

 Israel
The story: A gay German baker falls in love with an Israeli businessman who visits Berlin frequently. When he is killed in a tragic accident, the baker goes to Israel and surreptitiously befriends the man's widow.
Pros: Oscar loves Israel. The film is one of the most original in the competition.
Cons: The film goes in some very weird places. The lead character isn't necessarily likable. LGBT stories don't always score here.

 South Korea
The story: An introverted young man from a poor family falls for an impetuous young woman who says they went to school together. She begins dating a rich "Great Gatsby" type and then disappears. He tries to unravel the mystery.
Pros: The film is a critical darling and choosing the film will definitely appeal to the Elite Committee. The more you think about the story, the more interesting the mystery becomes.
Cons: The film is about 30 minutes too long and could do with some judicious editing. Oscar hates South Korea and has never nominated them even when they submit great films (better than this). It's a divisive film and not everyone likes it.

Bottom Line: I think that Iran and Israel are probably out.....South Korea will be depending on a "save" from the small committee....and that's going to be tough and heavily dependent on which Six the large committee chooses. An uphill battle for all three.....

FRONT-RUNNERS
2. LEBANON- “Capernaum”
1. JAPAN- “Shoplifters”

These two films won the top two prizes in Cannes this year.

JAPAN's Hirokazu Koreeda is one of my two favorite Japanese directors (along with the underrated and brilliant Tetsuya Kawashima) and Palme d'Or winner "Shoplifters" is probably his most acclaimed film ever. It's also an accessible family drama and likely to play well with the Academy. Statistically it would be surprising for tiny LEBANON to be nominated twice in a row but "Capernaum" won the Jury Prize in Cannes and will likely do very well with the large committee. I think it will probably just miss out as some critics just don't like the film and think that it's a bit too simplistic and schmaltzy. This is traditionally exactly what the large committee likes....but this year they've reportedly made it easier for people to join the committee so anything can happen. The film is about the problems faced by the children of illegal migrants living in Lebanon. 

Now the statistics:

Number of Asian countries (excluding the former USSR) who have participated in the past
: 31

Number of countries participating this year:  22

Number of debuts: Zero.

Who's out?:  The nine stragglers have only sent a film once (Laos and Syria), twice (Bhutan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Sri Lanka) or three times (Jordan, Malaysia and Mongolia). The most glaring absence this year is Malaysia which entered a film into the Golden Globes but has skipped the Oscars two years in a row, probably because the front-runners was a Chinese-language films and the Malaysian Academy  unofficially only considers Malay-language features. 

Number I predicted correctly- I did really bad, only predicting 5- Iran, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon and Pakistan. 

Already Seen: I've seen 12 out of 22- Bangladesh, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Korea, Palestine, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam, but not the two front-runners. My favorites were "Marlina the Murderer" from Indonesia and "The Cakemaker" from Israel, distantly followed by "No Date, No Signature" from Iran. I hated most of the others. 

Film I'm most looking forward to seeing
: Definitely "Shoplifters", which I hear is one of the best films of the year. 

Number of Female Directors:  5- Anucha Boonyawatana (Thailand), Rima Das (India), Nadine Labaki (Lebanon), Mouly Surya (Indonesia) and co-director Kay Nguyen (Vietnam). 

Oldest and Youngest Directors: 64-year old Lee Chang-dong (South Korea) is the oldest. It's unclear who the youngest director is, though it's probably Jamshid Mahmoudi (Afghanistan) or Amr Gamal (Yemen), who are both 35. 

Number of Foreign Languages Represented:  We have 4 films in Arabic (Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Yemen), two films in Mandarin (China and Hong Kong), two in Persian (Afghanistan, Iran) and two in Indonesian (Indonesia and Singapore). The other ten are primarily in Assamese (India), Bengali, Filipino, French (Cambodia), Japanese, Korean, Nepali, Taiwanese, Thai, Urdu and Vietnamese, plus the Israeli film which is an even mix of Hebrew, German and English. 

Number of Documentaries: 2- Cambodia and Palestine. 

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: 3. 

Highest profile film:  In terms of buzz, it's probably "Burning"....in terms of critics "Shoplifters"....in terms of box-office, it's mega-hit "Operation Red Sea". 

Oscar History: Rithy Panh ("The Missing Picture") is the only Oscar nominee on the list though the three front-runners Nadine Labaki ("Caramel", "Where Do We Go Now?"), Hirokazu Koreeda ("Nobody Knows") and Lee Chang-dong ("Secret Sunshine", "Oasis", "Eoudong") have all been in the race before. 

So have Mostofa Sarwar Farooki of Bangladesh ("Television", "Third Person Singular Number"), the Mahmoudi Brothers of Afghanistan ("Parting" and "20 Cubic Meters of Love"), Mohamed Al-Daradji of Iraq ("Dreams", "Son of Babylon"), Chito Rono of the Philippines ("Dekada '70") and Dante Lam of Hong Kong ("To the Fore", possibly the worst Oscar submission in recent history). 

Most Notable Omissions:   CHINA had their best chance of a nomination in years for Zhang Yimou's "Shadow" but they dumped it for the unheralded action movie "Hidden Man". Others eliminated early: "The Black Kite" (Afghanistan), "The Spy Gone North" (South Korea), "Motorcycle Girl" (Pakistan), "The Reports on Sarah and Saleem" (Palestine), and "The Bold, the Corrupt and the Beautiful" (Taiwan).  And tiny Bhutan had the chance to return with critically acclaimed "Honeygiver Among the Dogs".....but didn't. 

Familiar Faces: Steven Yeun ("Burning") of "The Walking Dead" fame is the most recognizable face to Western audiences. We also have Indian actor Irrfan Khan who stars in Bangladesh's submission and Nadine Labaki who directs and stars in "Capernaum" from her native Lebanon. 


Last year's race: These countries sent 24 films of which I saw 18. Three were superb and deserving of  an Oscar nomination- Iraq's "Dark Wind", Israel's "Foxtrot", Lebanon's "The Insult" though I also really loved the underdogs from Korea, Laos, Mongolia and Palestine. China, Taiwan and Thailand were the worst. 

Monday, November 26, 2018

2019 Oscar Contenders: Latin America and Africa

I’ve divided this year’s 87 nominees into four categories:

1. Latin America and Africa (22 films)
2. Asia and the Middle East (22 films)
3. Western Europe, Canada and Oceania (21 films)
4. Eastern Europe and the former USSR (22 films)

Here are the nominees from Latin America and Africa, which will probably end up with two shortlist spots.

DISQUALIFIED
23. CUBA- “Sergio and Sergei” Cuba was the last country to make a formal announcement, selecting Cold War dramedy “Sergio and Sergei” to represent the island on October 1st. Unfortunately, the film failed to appear on the official list a few days later. Why?….Some thought it was disqualified because the co-production had too much input from Spain. Others wondered if the film (co-starring American actor Ron Perlman) had too much English. The answers to both questions seemed to be no….Remezcla.com investigated the incident and it turns out that AMPAS claims they never received an entry from Cuba while the director and producers confirmed it had been sent on time. Not sure what happened but it’s a shame because the film- about the “radio friendship” between a Cuban teacher, a Russian cosmonaut and an American writer at the end of the Cold War- looks like a lot of fun and Cuba has mostly been absent from the category lately.

NO CHANCE IN HELL
Andrés Fernández-Salvador y Zaldumbide, Lily van Ghemen, and Luis Felipe Fernández-Salvador y Bolona in A Son of Man (2018)22. PANAMA- “Ruben Blades Is Not My Name”
21. COSTA RICA- “Medea”
20. PERU- “Winaypacha”
19. ECUADOR- “Son of Man”
18. MOROCCO- “Burnout”

            Costa Rica and Ecuador have sent two strange, experimental films and are happy just to be participating at this level. “Medea”, a spare 70-minute drama about a young woman concealing her pregnancy from her friends and family, is filmed in a grim, cinema-verite style. It’s a difficult watch but manages to hold the viewer’s attention. “Son of Man” is a strange Indiana Jones-style story about a father who invites his estranged son to search for a lost treasure in the Amazon jungle. Filmed in an experimental style with drones, it’s more a curiosity than anything else. 
            Panama and Peru are out of their league. “Winaypacha” (Peru) is a labor of love featuring two 80-year old non-professional actors living alone in the Andes mountains. The first film made in the Aymara language, it works more as a documentary of traditional life than as a dramatic feature. The ending, however, is haunting and unforgettable. Panama’s documentary “Ruben Blades Is Not My Name” certainly makes the point that actor/musician and politician Ruben Blades is a fascinating Renaissance Man, and it somehow won an Audience Award at SXSW. But as a film, it’s average and doesn’t break any new ground.
            Morocco just selected badly. Though they had a strong film year, they somehow ended up with “Burnout” a hotly anticipated but poorly reviewed triptych film about three characters (a street kid, a wealthy young husband and a high-class escort) living in modern-day Casablanca. Nobody seems to like the film. It bombed at Morocco’s film awards and has a 3.7 on IMDB, the lowest of any film here.

TOO MUCH COMPETITION
17. MALAWI- “Road to Sunrise”
16. DOMINICAN REPUBLIC- “Cocote”
15. ALGERIA- “Until the End of Time”
14. SOUTH AFRICA- “Sew the Winter to My Skin” 

            Let’s start with the two I’ve seen. “Until the End of Time” is billed as an unusual love story from Algeria as a grouchy old woman visiting the grave of her sister develops feelings for the old man who tends the graveyard. It starts off strong with a series of endearing characters, but squanders its potential and basically goes nowhere. And the ending just confused me.  “Cocote” (Dominican Republic) sets up a strong moral dilemma. A religious man returns home for the funeral of his father where his family pressures him to take violent revenge on the man they believe was responsible for his death. It’s a great idea but the director spends much of the film detailing the (fascinating) religious and musical traditions of  the village that the plot is frequently forgotten, and filming his characters with their faces off-screen or far-away…which quickly grows irritating.
            South Africa’s cerebral apartheid-era Robin Hood story (“Sew the Winter to My Skin”) premiered at Toronto. It tells the nearly wordless true story of a fugitive robber and cattle thief who steals from white Afrikaners to help beleaguered African communities. Reviews have been positive but unenthusiastic. Nearby Malawi enters the race for the first time with “Road to Sunrise”. It’s great to have Malawi here and the film- a sort of “Thelma and Louise” about two prostitutes on the run after committing a murder in self-defense, has been well-received, but it’s got no buzz.

MIDDLE OF THE PACK
13. BOLIVIA- “La muralla”
12. CHILE- “…And Suddenly the Dawn”
11. BRAZIL- “The Great Mystical Circus”
10. VENEZUELA- “The Family” 

            These four films from South America have pros and cons that guarantee their placement squarely in the middle of the 87 films on offer…In Bolivia’s favor, “Muralla” (The Goal Keeper) is said to be an exciting thriller, about a man who turns to human trafficking to get money for his son’s emergency operation. Against it, it’s very much a genre film (thrillers rarely score here) and at least one critic noted that it would have been better as the pilot for a TV series (apparently, there was some talk of this) rather than taking this on in a 90-minute film. Brazil’s “The Great Mystical Circus” appeared at Cannes, has a renowned director, an international star (Vincent Cassel) and the production values of an Oscar winner, showing a century in the life of a struggling Brazilian circus. Unfortunately, it also got terrible reviews, essentially calling it a silly soap opera, and many Brazilians were embarrassed by the choice. It’s also an uphill battle for Chile’s three-hour-plus “…And Suddenly the Dawn” , which won Best Picture at Montreal 2017. The longest film in the competition, the Hollywood Reporter called it a “baggy monster of a movie”, in its mostly positive review. This ambitious, old-fashioned story of an aging writer returning to his hometown sounds like something that may have been nominated in the 1980s, but I fear it will be too much of an effort in 2018. Lastly, we have Venezuela’s “La familia”, about a struggling single father who flees his urban slum when his sullen, proto-thug of a son kills a violent neighbor kid. It’s a good film (the only one of these four I’ve seen) that makes good use of its limited budget, but these sort of gritty, “slice of dramas” from Latin America rarely score, even when they are great (like Venezuela’s earlier “From Afar”).

HOPING FOR A MIRACLE
9. KENYA- “Supa Modo”
8. PARAGUAY- “Las herederas”
7. NIGER- “The Wedding Ring” 
6. EGYPT- “Yomeddine”

These “never-nominated” countries will likely do their countries proud but will ultimately fail to make the next round to the intense competition with over 80 other films.

Three out of four are relative newcomers; Niger is submitting for the first time, while Kenya (2012 debut) and Paraguay (2015) are each sending their third film.  On paper, Paraguay’s “The Heiresses” (Las herederas) looks to be the strongest and many people are predicting it for the shortlist. I disagree. This female-driven meditation on loneliness is certainly well-acted (it won Best Actress in Berlin) but it’s also quite spare and minimalist. Centering on an upper-class woman who has fallen on hard times, I forgot the film completely by the next day. I think the exotic “The Wedding Ring” will do better. Following in the footsteps of other exotic dramas and filled with local color, “The Wedding Ring” tells the story of a young tribal princess who returns home to her traditional village after an extended stay living in Europe. It will probably miss out, but this female-helmed film from a virtually unknown nation is a film to watch.

“Supa Modo”, a warm-hearted tearjerker about an entire village trying to make the final wish of a terminally ill little girl come true, was controversially selected over lesbian drama “Rafiki” but was probably a better choice. Tugging at the heartstrings of the large committee, it will likely do well but fail to make the Top Six. Ditto “Yomeddine”, a comedy-drama road movie about a Christian man cured of leprosy, on a journey across Egypt. It played at Cannes but reviews have been mixed (though better in the USA than Europe). It’s definitely a “feel-good” movie, but Egypt has never scored here and some are criticizing the sentimental schmaltz factor.


CHALLENGERS/DARK HORSES
5. ARGENTINA- “El angel”
4. COLOMBIA- “Birds of Passage”
3. URUGUAY- “12-Year Night”
2. TUNISIA- “Beauty and the Dogs”  

One (or even two) of these films could fight their way to a shortlist spot if they’re lucky. The one everyone is talking about it “Birds of Passage”, whose director (Ciro Guerra) got a first-ever nomination for Colombia three years ago with "Embrace of the Serpent". “Birds of Passage” is a sprawling epic covering several decades in the life of a remote Amerindian community during the drug trade of the 1970s and 80s. Many have compared it to “The Godfather”. It’s very well-made but it's hard work to watch. I have a feeling it will just miss out.
 Though they have a lot less buzz, I’m feeling more confident about the chances for Tunisia and Uruguay. Simply put, “Beauty and the Dogs” (Cannes 2017) is a fantastic film. It's definitely my favorite of the 38 films I've seen so far. It's thrilling, it's heartbreaking, it's inspiring, it's maddening, it's everything a film should be....Plotwise, a young Tunisian woman finds herself under attack when she reports she has been sexual assaulted by three policemen. The Oscar committee is rarely interested in movies about women (look at the unfair snubs of brilliant movies like “Eva Nova”, “Gloria” and “8 Women”) and this one will definitely be on the bubble. But it’s topical Arab take on #MeToo will surely get people talking. “A Twelve-Year Night” (Venice) delves into the military dictatorship of the 1970s when three prisoners (including a future President) were held in solitary confinement in an attempt to drive them mad. Oscar voters like prison dramas and this one is said to be particularly well-done, with humor and pathos and everything the large committee likes. 
            Last but not least is “El angel”, the crime drama from Argentina about teenage killer Robledo Puch. A fun mix of Quentin Tarantino and Pedro Almodovar (who co-produced) in equal measure, it’s an entertaining biopic that has done better with audiences than with critics. While the film will likely do well in the rankings, the perception that it is sometimes “uneven” (along with some of the in-your-face homoeroticism) will prevent it from making it to the Top Nine.





ALMOST A LOCK
1. MEXICO- “Roma”

They say there are no locks in the Foreign Film category but 1970s B+W drama “Roma” is already tipped to win Mexico's first-ever Oscar for Best Foreign Film in February. Reviews have been universally positive and the film is expected to get nominations in mainstream categories including Best Screenplay and possibly even Best Picture. It’s as much of a lock as there can be to make the shortlist.




Now the statistics:

Number of countries from these regions who have participated in the past
: 20 from Latin America and 14 from Africa

Number of countries participating this year:  22; 14 from Latin America (15, if you count Cuba) and 8 from Africa.

Number of debuts: 2- MALAWI and NIGER

Number of countries opting out:  From Latin America, Puerto Rico is no longer invited and Honduras (who debuted last year) formed a committee but couldn’t find a suitable entry. Guatemala, Haiti and Nicaragua also bowed out. From Africa, the most notable absences were Ethiopia, Ghana (which made a big deal of forming a selection committee last year but which never sent a film) and Senegal, which made the shortlist last year. 

Number I predicted correctly- 8- Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Kenya, Mexico, Paraguay, Tunisia and Uruguay plus I mentioned Malawi and Niger might debut. Only Ecuador and South Africa took me completely by surprise.

Already Seen: 10. 
I’ve seen the nominees from Algeria, Argentina, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Tunisia and Venezuela. "Beauty and the Dogs" is far and away the best film. 

Film I'm most looking forward to seeing
: “The Wedding Ring”, a rare cinematic look at NIGER.

Number of Female Directors:  5- Kaouther Ben Hania (Tunisia), Yasmine Chouikh (Algeria), Rahmatou Keita (Niger) and Alexandra Latishev (Costa Rica) plus Cristina Gallego (Colombia) who co-directed “Birds of Passage” with her ex-husband Ciro Guerro.

Oldest and Youngest Directors: 31-year old Oscar Catacora (Peru) and 78-year old Caca Diegues (Brazil) 

Number of Foreign Languages Represented:  Many of the films are multi-lingual, but we have 12 mostly in Spanish, four in Arabic and one each in Afrikaans, Portuguese and Swahili. There are also three exotic tales primarily in Wayuu (Colombia), Chichewa (Malawi), Aymara (Peru) and the African languages of Zarma and Hausa (Niger).

Number of Comedies: The closest thing to a comedy on this grim list is "Yomeddine" from Egypt. 

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: 5, but that's pushing it. 

Highest profile film:  No contest. It’s Oscar favorite “Roma” from MEXICO.

Oscar History: Mexico's Alfonso Cuaron has two Oscars for directing and editing "Gravity" while Colombia's Ciro Guerra got Colombia's first Oscar nomination in this category for "Embrace of the Serpent". 

Carlos 'Caca' Diegues is hoping the seventh time is the charm as he represented Brazil without luck six times between 1977 and 1999. Silvio Caiozzi (Chile) and Alvaro Brechner (Uruguay) each represented their countries twice before while Noureddine Lakhmari (Morocco) was in the race once for "Casanegra" . 

Controversies and Changes:  Other than Cuba's mysterious absence? The biggest controversy came from Kenya when the homophobic censorship board banned lesbian-themed Cannes drama "Rafiki" from screening in the country. The director sued in court and won an injunction, allowing the film to screen and quickly becoming the top-selling Kenyan film of the year. In the end, the selection committee chose a rival film ("Supa Modo") but it's important to note that the director of "Supa Modo" supported the screening of "Rafiki" and the director of "Rafiki" quickly congratulated the director of "Supa Modo". Both films were made by young, up-and-coming directors. A lot of Brazilians were upset that the critically maligned "Great Mystical Circus" was selected over more acclaimed films like "Loveling" and "Good Manners". 

Most Notable Omissions:   For me, the most surprising omission was "Pablo's Word", an engaging thriller that was expected to be the first-ever Oscar submission from El Salvador, the only Latin American country never to compete in the Oscar race. Heist thriller "Museo" (Mexico) and lesbian love story "Rafiki" (Kenya) were also notable omissions. Also out of luck in Round One: Berenice Bejo's "Quietude" (Argentina), werewolf horror drama "Good Manners" (Brazil), senior citizen story "Violeta, al fin" (Costa Rica), LGBT drama "Retablo" (Peru) and border thriller "El amparo" (Venezuela). 

Familiar Faces: Ruben Blades (Panama), Vincent Cassel (Brazil), Antonio de la Torre (Uruguay) Ron Perlman (Cuba), and Cecilia Roth (Argentina)

Last year's race:    Last year, Africa and Latin America sent 23 films, including the eventual winner (Chile) and three of the nine shortlisted films. I saw 16 out of 23, though my personal favorites were “Carpinteros” (Dominican Republic) and “Sheikh Jackson” (Egypt).

Friday, August 31, 2018

FOREIGN OSCAR PREDICTIONS- Asia

 And here's the last group of predictions, from the 24 countries of Asia.

Unfortunately, I'm going on vacation this weekend, so I'm going to have to leave India blank and three incomplete (China, South Korea and the Philippines). I'll try to finish when I get back, if they haven't already announced.


1.  AFGHANISTAN- “Black Kite”  Although they haven’t always met all Oscar requirements, the plucky Afghan Academy has managed to send nominees six years in a row, despite Afghanistan’s precarious security situation. This year, I expect they will send “Black Kite”, a low-budget drama made by Canada-based Tarique Qayumi that played at Toronto 2017. It follows the lives of a kite-maker and his family from the happy days of the 1960s through the war and destruction of the Taliban years and beyond. Also possible is Afghan-American Sonia Nassery Cole’s new refugee drama “I Am You”, though I don’t think that will be finished in time. Siddiq Barmak’s new film “The Postman” is in pre-production and will hopefully be selected next year.

2.  BANGLADESH- “Haldaa” Bangladesh has a half-dozen potential contenders, including new films by three of the seven living Bangladesh directors who have been picked before- “Death of a Poet”, “Haldaa” and “No Bed of Roses”. I’m predicting they send “Haldaa” about the struggles of rural fishermen faced with encroachment and environmental pollution. Unlike other Bangladeshi films which sometimes struggle with production values, the trailer looks beautiful, and it features a cast that have appeared numerous other submissions. The only handicap is that it doesn’t seem to have been made by the main film studio. Only one Bangladeshi submission since 2005 (“Television”) wasn’t made by that studio, and it had the backing of some major awards. In second-place will be “Komola Rocket” (made by Impress Telefilms), about a group of passengers from all strata of Bangladeshi society riding a steamer ship down-river. Rounding out the Top Five options: (in order) “No Bed of Roses” (Moscow, Shanghai), starring Bollywood actor Irrfan Khan, which was banned but finally approved for screening last October, “Sohagi’s Ornament” (Best Bangladeshi Film, Dhaka Film Festival), about a young boy seeking work in the capital, which is tryiung to be the first female-helmed Bangladeshi Oscar submission, and “Chitkini” (Rest in Silence), a rural drama set in the remote north of the country. Less likely: indie “Death of a Poet”, Agatha Christie reimagining “Dangling By a String” (looks like fun!) and popular Bollywood-style romance “Swopnajaal”.

3.  BHUTAN- “Honeygiver Among the Dogs” Tiny Bhutan sent one (fantastic!) film in 1999 but there was a rumor that they were reconvening an Oscar committee last year. I predicted “Honeygiver” last year, but it failed to get a domestic release until April 20th, 2018. This film noir about a detective investigating the disappearance of a Buddhist nun has gotten great reviews and has been featured at a number of international festivals since its Busan premiere last year. As a big fan of Khynetse Norbu (“Travellers & Magicians”), I’d love to see Bhutan back. The two big winners at the National Film Awards- “Nge Tsawai Lama” and “Dhaari Nhaaba”- won’t come into play.
4.  CAMBODIA- “Loung Preah Sdech Korn” I remember when I used to struggle to find even one film that Cambodia had produced in a given year. This year, they have three strong contenders to represent the Kingdom. “Graves Without A Name” is a new documentary by Oscar nominee and Khmer Rouge survivor Rithy Panh, who directed “The Missing Picture” and co-produced “First They Killed My Father”. His latest documentary opens the Venice Film Festival and is about a teenaged boy who tries to find the graves of the family members murdered during the Khmer Rouge genocide. “In the Life of Music”, co-starring Cambodian-Canadian actress Ellen Wong (“Scott Pilgrim”, “GLOW”), is about how a Cambodian song affects the lives of three different generations of Cambodians. It’s already lobbying to be nominated at the Asia-Pacific Screen Awards. Last is “Loung Preah Sdech Korn”, a 15th century royal historical drama reportedly the most expensive Cambodian production ever made, and Cambodia’s first foray into costume drama. I’m predicting “Loung Preah Sdech Korn” because of its budget and the reported support from Cambodia’s president-cum-dictator Hun Sen. However, they may not be able to get it subtitled in time, leaving the door open to Rithy Panh.

5.  CHINA- "Shadow" It's difficult to see China going with anything other than Zhang Yimou's latest epic, "Shadows", which premieres in Venice. Haven't seen any reviews so far, but it (as always) looks beautiful. 

6.  HONG KONG- “No. 1 Chung Ying Street” It’s not been a great film year for Hong Kong. Nothing has made a mark at film festivals, most major directors have skipped this year and those movies that have premiered haven’t are cookie-cutter gangster movies and romantic comedies. I have a feeling that the HK selection will either be a new movie that they release at the very last moment in one theatre, or a “cheat” by sending in a majority-China co-production. Perhaps the surprise release could be Fruit Chan’s mysterious new martial arts movie “The Invincible Dragon” which was originally supposed to premiere in August 2018, but didn’t? Not sure. If they want to send a Hong Kong movie that has actually been released, I really have no idea. Perhaps low-key 60s drama “No. 1 Chung Ying Street”, drawing parallels between anti-UK protests in the 1960s and the debate between pro-China and pro-autonomy protesters…..Or  Donnie Yen’s latest action drama “Big Brother”? Splashy fantasy film "The Thousand Faces of Dunjia"? None of these seem particularly likely and I expect Hong Kong will be selecting something nobody even knew was eligible. Let’s do “Chung Ying” as a placeholder.

7.  INDIA- TBD

8.  INDONESIA- “Sultan Agung” Indonesia has been fairly quiet this year at film festivals, although action-western “Buffalo Boys” has gotten some play at Asian-themed film festivals. But with a Singaporean director, average reviews and half its dialogue in English, that’s a non-starter.  The three most prominent films are (in alphabetical order): (1)- Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts. The Indonesian “Kill Bill”, this feminist western about a woman who defends herself against a vicious gang of men premiered at Cannes 2017 before opening in Indonesian cinemas in November. It’s original and dramatic and the highest-profile choice; but the Indonesian Academy has been skewing conservative lately….(2)- “The Seen and the Unseen. A youth drama about a Balinese girl getting over the loss of her twin brother, it played at a Berlinale side-bar this year. Said to be artsy, symbolic and culturally interesting, it’s the sophomore film of Kamila Andini, whose father and husband are both famous directors whose films have represented Indonesia at the Oscars. (3)- “Sultan Agung”, a big period drama set in 17th century Java, when a controversial but revered Sultan ruled and fought off initial incursions by the Dutch. While reviews have not been universally positive, the production values are some of Indonesia’s best, and the director was selected for another period piece a few years ago. None of these are likely to net Indonesia its first-ever Oscar nomination, but I think the costumes and sets of “Sultan Agung” will beat out the controversial girl power of “Marlina the Murderer”. Unlikely but possible: Borneo tale “Terbang” and romantic drama “Dilan 1990”.

9.  JAPAN- “Shoplifters” Japan announced their Oscar pick early this year, choosing Hirokazu Koreeda’s Palme d’Or winner “Shoplifters” before I had a chance to make a prediction. This was surprising only because Japan never goes for the obvious choice. Despite making some of the world’s greatest films, they usually select a rather obscure and forgettable film. They ignored their past two Palme d’Or winners (“Ballad of Narayama” and “The Eel”, both by Shohei Imamura who was picked twice by Japan for more obscure efforts). In the past seven years, I’ve seen six of their nominees. They selected four “good but not great” movies I barely remember seeing (“100-Yen Love”, “The Great Passage”, “Her Love Boils Bathwater” and “Postcard”), one mediocre one (“The Light Shines Only There”) and one that was downright bad (“Nagasaki: Memories of My Son”). So, I’m excited that they chose “Shoplifters”, by one of my favorite Japanese directors. It’s what they should have chosen. Other films that got ignored in a relatively slow year: mystery-thriller “The Crimes That Bind”, anime-drama “Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms”, comedy “Oh Lucy!” (co-starring Josh Hartnett) and Naomi Kawase’s “Vision” (co-starring Juliette Binoche). 

10.  KAZAKHSTAN- “Talan” Kazakhstan has one of the more confusing races in Asia. Most people think it will be “Ayka”, because it played at the Cannes Film Festival and won Best Actress- certainly a major event for Kazakh cinema. It’s also the long-awaited sophomore film by director Sergey Dvortsevoy, who directed “Tulpan”, one of Kazakhstan’s best-loved films. However, “Ayka”, about a desperately poor Central Asian mother living in Moscow, is not the sort of super-nationalist historical drama out of the national film studio that Kazakhstan usually sends. Remember that the acclaimed “Harmony Lessons”, which did not necessarily show Kazakhstan in the best possible light, was snubbed. Indie director Adilkhan Yerzhanov has two new films this year- corruption drama “The Gentle Indifference of the World” (Cannes) and the surreal, weird “Night God” (Moscow) but I can’t see them selecting them for the same reasons. I actually think “Ayka” will face its strongest competition from two more traditional dramas, namely “A Call to Father”, about the life of a young boy with emotional problems, who comes from a poor dysfunctional family, and “Talan”, a historical drama about two orphan boys who encounter war and famine during Soviet times. “Talan” represented Kazakhstan in the Central Asia section of Kazakhstan’s biggest film festival, while “A Call to Father” was the Kazakh submission for the Russian Nika Awards (where it was nominated). Or they could choose something brand-new like “The River”, due to premiere in Toronto. It’s unclear. For now, I’m predicting “Talan”, because it focuses on history and because the director is a well-known actor.

11.  KOREA- "1987" Tight race and the Koreans are never predictable. May not be my final prediction, as many are also predicting "The Spy Gone North" and "Burning". 


12.  KYRGYZSTAN- “Night Accident” Kyrgyzstan has submitted some of my personal favorites over the years, and the poor, remote country has likely come very closely to an Oscar nomination on more than one occasion. This year, they have two award-winners in contention, namely “Night Accident” (Grand Prize in Tallinn Black Nights) and “Suleiman Mountain” (Winner of the East of the West in Karlovy Vary). Both films are slice-of-life dramas about life in the remote villages and highways of Kyrgyzstan. Though “Suleiman” (about a loutish husband juggling two wives) has the bigger name, I’m predicting they send the more low-key “Night Accident” (a road movie) because “Suleiman” has a Russian director. However, they’re both strong contenders. Dark horse: musical “Song of the Tree”, which played in Moscow.


13.  LAOS- “Moon City” Laos submitted a film for the first time last year and what a debut it was! Creepy, twisty horror film “Dearest Sister” was one of the most entertaining and most enjoyable films of last year’s competition. Lao-American director Mattie Do has a new movie in pre-production, but this year hasn’t yet seen a large number of new features. The Vientiane Film Festival didn’t have any new domestic features and the only eligible film I know of is superhero comedy “Moon City: The Rise of Ninja Attack”. As this is an unlikely choice for Oscar, they may skip and wait until next year. For a good article on Laos’ emergent film industry, see here.

14.  MALAYSIA- “Tomorrow” Malaysia gave no reason for not sending a film last year, despite strong notices for “You Mean the World to Me”, which was probably not sent because it’s in Chinese (spoken by 23% of Malaysia’s population) and not Malay, which receives affirmative action and special privileges in the country. However, it’s odd that they didn’t send “Adirawaku”, which was easily the best-reviewed Malay-language film of the year, either. Their National Film Awards were postponed from September to December, so there will be no precursors….If they return, I expect it will be “Tomorrow” (Pulang), a drama about a sailor who travels the world for 61 years, while his devoted wife waits for him at home, “Jibam”, about a special-needs child (similar to their last entry in 2016), or “Dukun”, a horror-thriller by the director of the previously submitted “Bunohan”. I expect “Tomorrow” has the edge.

15.  MONGOLIA- “Out of Paradise” It’s extremely rare that films from remote Mongolia films make it to international film festivals. So, when they win the Grand Prize at a Class-A Festival- even one of the smaller ones- it’s pretty much a certainty it will be their pick for their Oscars. “Out of Paradise”, about a poor couple on a desperate road trip to get medical attention for a difficult pregnancy, won the Grand Prize at Shanghai. Since Mongolia rejoined the Oscars last year after a 12-year absence, you can expect to see this film on the longlist.

16.   NEPAL- “Hari” Nepal has become a regular contributor to this category since 2013, sending three arthouse films and two very local dramas. They don’t seem to consider their Bollywood-style musicals, romances and action movies, which make up their majority of their filmmaking industry. That’s probably a good idea, but it does narrow their options from 100 to just one or two. Nepal hasn’t had any films at any international festivals this year, and they were the only country absent from the SAARC Film Festival (even tiny Maldives sent a movie) For the Oscars this year, I think the two frontrunners are “Bhor”, a social drama about the pain and suffering Nepali brides endure under the traditional “dowry” (bride price) system, and “Hari”, a quirky drama about an overly superstitious and unquestioningly religious man. These both seem like the sort of movies Nepal has sent in the past. Other choices include romance “Bobby”, sports drama “Damaru Ko Dandibiyo” or mega-hit wedding comedy “Shatru Gate”. I think “Hari” will ultimately be selected.

17.  PAKISTAN- “Cake” I spent a year living in Pakistan and this year I have seen my Pakistani friends raving about two new films that they say herald a new kind of Pakistani cinema. One of these is “Cake”, about a middle-class family (yes! Pakistan has a middle-class!) consisting of two aging parents and their adult children facing normal, everyday problems. No terrorism, no honor killings, no Bollywood-style tunes….Just a family drama. And I think this will resonate with American audiences too. The other film- “Motorcycle Girl”, is about a young woman who decides to travel around Pakistan by motorcycle. Though this is perfectly legal, it is virtually unheard of in most parts of Pakistan. This film hasn’t been as big as “Cake”, but it does show off the natural beauty of Pakistan. I think the Pakistanis will select one of these two, but they could also go with pro-military drama “Parwaaz Hay Junoon” or sexual assault drama “Verna”, but I think both of these would be too controversial for the selection committee.

18.  PHILIPPINES- "Balangiga: Howling Wilderness" It's rare that the two biggest film awards in the Philippines award Best Picture to the same movie, but they did this year. Still, I haven't researched the Philippines yet, so this is just a placeholder. 

19.  SINGAPORE- “A Land Imagined” Singapore’s biggest film of the year is “Crazy Rich Asians”. It may be an American movie, but the film (based on the bestseller book by Singaporean Kevin Kwan) is very much a love letter to Singapore, and brought back so many memories for me of the cityscapes, the food and the talented actors there. Like Mongolia (see above), it’s a huge achievement when a tiny country wins at a Class-A Festival, so it’s pretty certain they’ll select “A Land Imagined”, which won the Golden Leopard a few weeks ago in Locarno. This film noir mystery about a detective searching for missing migrant workers has not gotten very good reviews and it’s victory was a bit of a surprise. But the Golden Leopard and an overall weak year should make this an easy choice. It’s main competition is Eric Khoo’s “Ramen Teh” , a Japanese co-production, and a celebration of Singapore and Japanese cuisine. Oscar loves foodie movies, so this would arguably be a better choice. Autism drama “Wayang Kids” and raucous wedding comedy “The Big Day” are eligible but unlikely.

20.  SRI LANKA- “The Goddess” Sri Lanka produces dozens of films annually, but they have only entered the Oscar race twice, with two rather obscure and forgotten titles. This year, they re-started their dormant Film Awards where the winner was “28”, a film  that I predicted to represent Sri Lanka in 2015, but which didn’t get a domestic release until June 2017. In any case, it’s not eligible. In the unlikely event that they return, it would probably be with “The Goddess” (Vaishnavee), made by the widow of Sri Lanka’s most famous director Lester James Peries and based on a story he wrote. It’s a fantasy-drama about a puppeteer who carves a puppet in memory of the fiancée who abandoned him, which then comes to life.  Other options: romantic drama “The Day We Will” and scam-artist tale “The Undecided” joined “The Goddess” in a special Sri Lanka retrospective at the Moscow Film Festival. Other possibilities include national reconciliation drama “Her. Him. The Other”,  and “Joyful Journeys”, about an 85-year old grandfather getting to know his young grandson.

21.  TAIWAN- “Father to Son” This year is likely to be a race between glossy crime drama “The Bold, Corrupt and the Beautiful” and the new Hou Hsiao-hsien produced drama “Father to Son”. “The Bold, Corrupt and the Beautiful” won the Golden Horse Award last year and has gotten very strong notices for its story of murder, corruption and political intrigue, revolving around a widow who becomes the head of a crime empire.  “Father to Son” debuted this year in Rotterdam and is executive produced by Hou Hsiao-hsien, whose painfully languorous arthouse films have represented Taiwan three times. In the film, a dying Taiwanese man travels to Japan to find news of his long-absent father, while another Hong Kong man travels to Taiwan to search for him. With “Bold”’s political themes, “Father” is perhaps a more relatable story.  Taiwan has made some odd choices lately including last year’s LGBT well-meaning documentary “Small Talk”, which was more of a therapy session than a film. So, it’s definitely possible they’ll select the bizarre “Great Buddha”, a B+W indie black comedy that won the 2017 Taipei Film Festival, or “Love Education” (Busan) by Sylvia Chang (selected twice), a family drama set in Mainland China about the conflict between two widows who shared the same husband. LGBT dramedy “Dear Ex”, which won the Taipei Film Festival in 2018 won’t be released in time, while “Angels Wear White” may be considered too much of a Mainland Chinese film. I think "Father to Son" and "Bold" are in a virtual tie, but predict "Father" has the edge.

22.  TAJIKISTAN- “Narrow” Tajikistan has entered the race twice before, but never since 2005. Their national film festival only runs every other year so they are probably preparing any national premieres they have for this year’s edition that opens in October. If they chose to send a film, the only one I’m aware of is “Narrow”, a drama that played at the Eurasia International Film Festival in neighboring Kazakhstan. It’s about a 9-year old boy who famous social exclusion because his family has not gotten him circumsized per Islamic custom.

23.   THAILAND- “Samui Song” Thailand doesn’t have much to pick from this year and I’m kind of confused as to what they would send. However, it’s always foolish to bet against Pen-ek Ratanaruang, who has represented Thailand four times (five if you count 2006 when the Thais changed their mind after picking “Invisible Waves”). Cult thriller “Samui Song” played in Venice Days and has some high-profile Thai actors in it. I’m just not sure what else Thailand would pick. Manta Ray” premiered in Venice Horizons but surely won’t get a release at home by September 30. “Khun Pan 2” looks good but is a silly action sequel. “7 Days” sounds like a melodrama version of “Quantum Leap”. It’s “Samui Song” by default. Maybe?

24.  VIETNAM- “Song Lang” Vietnam’s most widely anticipated film of the year is “The Third Wife”, which will have its World premiere at the Toronto Film Festival on September 7. Filmed with the backing of Spike Lee’s production company, it’s a 19th century period piece about a 14-year old girl chosen to be the third wife of a wealthy landowner. Make no mistake about her name- director Ash Mayfair is born and raised in Vietnam. Vietnamese films have often struggled to get a qualifying release so it’s highly unlikely it will be released before October 1st. Count on it being chosen next year. Vietnam doesn’t have too many other films to choose from. I think two new nostalgic dramas- “Song Lang” and “The Tailor” will be the main films considered. “The Tailor” (Busan) won Best Picture at the Vietnamese Silver Kite Awards and has been compared to a Viet “Devil Wears Prada” for its comedy-drama story of fashion designers rejecting and then re-appreciating Vietnamese traditional dress, the ao dai. “Song Lang” is more concerned with music than fashion, focusing on a boy growing up in post-war Saigon, and obsessed with traditional cải lương Vietnamese folk music. Somehow, I think the more serious, male-oriented “Song Lang” will beat out the better-known “Tailor”. Less likely: melodrama “The Mother-in-Law”.

Possible Debuts:
25.  UZBEKISTAN- “Fortitude” Uzbekistan is the most important Asian country that has never sent a film to the Oscars. With the new President opening the country up, it’s possible they could send “Fortitude”, a drama that has been representing the country at a number of festivals in the former USSR, including Moscow, Eurasia (in Kazakhstan) and the Golden Apricots (in Armenia). It’s about a dying man seeking to make amends with his estranged son before he dies. Also possible "Passing Rain" from tiny Macau and "Mystery of Burma" from Burma (Myanmar).