Tuesday, December 4, 2007



Today, let's look at the 18 contenders from Asia and the Pacific. Although Asian films rarely get nominated by the Asia-phobic Academy Award committee, the submissions from these countries are often among the best films of the year. Unlike Western Europe, Asian countries often don't seem to understand (or, perhaps, care) what Oscar likes.

Again, we'll start with statistics:
Number of countries invited: 30
Number of countries submitting films: 18
Number of countries opting out: 12, namely Bhutan, Cambodia, Fiji, Malaysia and Sri Lanka (all of which have only ever submitted once), Kuwait and Tajikistan (twice each), Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan and Palestine (three times) and Nepal (four times). The most surprising omission is Kyrgyzstan, which sent a film last year and whose new "Pure Coolness", a drama about bride-kidnapping, is supposed to be quite good.

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: Lots of "dark horses", very few front-runners......Two-thirds of the films have a slight chance at a spot, but I'd be shocked if more than one makes it through.

Number of disqualifications: 2 Taiwan and Israel

TAIWAN's award-winning spy thriller "Lust, Caution" was ruled out because there was almost no Taiwanese input on the film besides director Ang Lee....This is completely true, but there was almost none on Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" either and that was accepted and went on to win..... ISRAEL's "The Band's Visit" was disqualified for having over 50% English dialogue, even though most of this was funny "gibberish English" used to show the difficulties of an Arabic-speaking band communicating with their Hebrew-speaking interlocutors in Israel. Both countries were allowed to choose new films.

Number of Languages Represented: 17. Arabic, Bangla, Bikol, Chinese (5 films in different varieties of Chinese), French, Hebrew, Hindi, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Kurdish, Mongolian, Persian, Tagalog, Thai, Vietnamese (the films from Lebanon & Philippines were bilingual; the film from Australia is about 40% in English).

Country with the Best Shot at a Nomination: Everyone is predicting Korea or Lebanon, but I'll go out on a limb and say the best chances lie with Australia, whose comfortable 50% English-language track (barely qualifying!) will make subtitle-weary voters swoon.

Country with the Least Shot at a Nomination: The Philippines.

Number of Comedies: 2 (Lebanon and Singapore)

Number of Musicals: 1 (Singapore again!)

Oscar History: A dual citizen of Russia & Kazakhstan, Sergei Bodrov Sr., the director of "Mongol", was nominated in this category for Russia in 1997. Ang Lee, who was disqualified from representing Taiwan, had been nominated in this category three times (including one win) and also won the Best Director Oscar for "Brokeback Mountain".

China, Hong Kong, India, Iran, Israel, Japan, Taiwan and Vietnam have all garnered at least one Oscar nomination.

This year's selected directors from Hong Kong, India, Iraq, Israel, Kazakhstan, Korea and Thailand have all been chosen by their countries before.

Number of Female Directors: 1 (Just Lebanon)

Tough Choices: China was originally rumored to be sending "The Sun Also Rises"......but they didn't. They also foolishly decided against the surprisingly touching black comedy "Getting Home", which would have had a great chance for a rare Chinese nomination. Korea short-listed patriotic drama "May 18th" and arthouse fave Kim Ki-Duk's "Breath". Japan nixed Cannes runner-up "The Mourning Forest". Thailand has chosen Pen-Ek Rataruang three times, but didn't go with his new comedy "Ploy". Indonesia dumped its lavish, expensive Javanese opera "Opera Jawa" and Vietnam had to drop patriotic war film "The Rebel". And The Film Federation of India got sued by a rival director after choosing "Eklavya" over the better-reviewed "Dharm".

Familiar Faces: The most famous face here is Tadanobu Asano, dubbed into Mongolian, who stars as Genghis Khan in the Kazakhstani submission. Joan Chen co-starred in "Home Song Stories" (Australia), "Lust, Caution" (Taiwan's original pick) and "The Sun Also Rises" (a finalist for both China and Hong Kong, which did not get picked by either country). Ryo Kase (Letters From Iwo Jima) and Koji Yakusho (Memoirs of a Geisha) are co-leads in the Japanese submission. Jackie Shroff (India) is a well-known face in Bollywood. Although not very famous outside of Hong Kong, "Exiled" features local stars Anthony Wong, Nick Cheung, Simon Yam and Taiwanese singer Richie Ren. Kang-ho Song has starred in many of Korea's biggest exports, including the new "Secret Sunshine". And Intira Charoenpura (Nang-Nak, Brokedown Palace) is a familiar face in Thailand.

Number of countries I predicted correctly: Only 8 (Australia, Bangladesh, Israel, Korea, Lebanon, Singapore, Taiwan, Vietnam). Biggest surprise: Hong Kong's "Exiled" which premiered well over a year ago.

Now the countdown:


16. 881 (SINGAPORE)
14. ISLAND ETUDE (Taiwan)

These six Asian films have various problems that effectively make a nomination impossible. Singapore's film is too frenetic and campy....Iran's film too melodramatic. Philippines has sent a well-reviewed movie with low-production values. India has sent a film with nothing but good production values holding it together. Hong Kong has sent a well-reviewed gangster film, but shoot-em-ups are not what this committee likes to see. Nor is a pretty but meandering and mostly plotless Taiwanese road movie.

Let's start with what looks like the longest of longshots....SINGAPORE'S 881, a musical-comedy whose manic style is compared to a combination of "Kung Fu Hustle" and "Moulin Rouge". It was a huge hit at home, features a lot of local color from my favorite country in the world (really!!!) and is the first Singaporean film to be accepted by AMPAS. However, the over-the-top acting and Asian pop music is sure to baffle the committee.

It's never a good sign when a country itself disparages the film they have themselves selected......When the President of the Film Federation of INDIA announced that "Eklavya", a costume drama and box-office flop, had been selected he noted that he was embarrassed by the selection. A rival director, whose film had garnered much better reviews sued the Federation alleging favoritism and corruption in the voting. This is probably partly true, and despite its pretty sets, the tainted "Eklavya" is unlikely to advance......That said, "Eklavya" is not as bad a choice as most people think....It appears to have done better with Western audiences than Inian ones. IRAN's committee politely noted that they didn't think "M for Mother" was good enough for an Oscar nomination, but they felt it was important to be part of the competition. I applaud them for that. Anyway, "M for Mother", is a dour melodrama about an upper-class family torn apart after the birth of a handicapped child (birth defects due to the mother's exposure to chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq War). The reviews simply aren't good enough.

Ditto for HONG KONG. "Exiled" was a well-reviewed gangster film to be sure, but it is what it is. Not even "Infernal Affairs" (remade as Oscar winner "The Departed" managed a nod in this category, so "Exiled" is SO not going to make it. And after TAIWAN was disqualified for "Lust, Caution", Taiwan so it's Oscar hopes disappear. "Island Etude", the story of a hearing-impaired young man bicycling around the island is supposed to make for a pretty travelogue and a cute story, but doesn't have enough of a plot for this category.

As for THE PHILIPPINES, "Donsol" is a quiet romantic drama about two lonely people who meet in a tourist village famous for whale sharks. Lots of beautiful underwater photography, but the filmmakers had no budget, and a "small" digital film like this is simply not going to make the finals.

11. THE KNOT (China)
10. ON THE WINGS OF DREAMS (Bangladesh)
9. JANI GAL (Iraq)

The problem for three of these films have gotten generally good reviews, but lack the wide support or international awards that get you to the next round in this sort of a competition. Iraq's film has barely been seen internationally and remained largely unknown.

INDONESIA'S "Denias" is a touching story, beautifully filmed in one of Indonesia's most remote and photogenic provinces, about a bright young boy from a rural tribe who endeavors to get an education. It got great reviews at home, but it's fairly formulaic and hasn't made any mark on the world stage.

CHINA's "The Knot" is a love story that spans six decades and two continents, from Taiwan to Mainland China to faraway Tibet and America. Sounds like Oscar bait, but China was one of the last countries to make their Oscar selection, largely because they couldn't figure out if any of their movies had a real chance at being chosen. "The Knot" is largely a melodrama and there's too much competition this year.

BANGLADESH is always an "also-ran" in this competition. However, this year's nominee "On the Wings of Dreams", about an impoverished family who believes their troubles are over when they find a large sack of foreign currency, is the first Bangladeshi film since "The Clay Bird" (in 2002) to win awards internationally (in Shanghai). I don't think the film has any chance in this category....it's probably better suited to Asian audiences....but it is definitely an improvement on the last few Bangladesh's cinematic selections.
IRAQ'S Kurdish drama is a real unknown quantity, which is why I am placing it in the middle of the rankings. It's absolutely amazing that Iraq can still produce films in the middle of the war, but they have submitted three years in a row now. This is the second submission made in the (mostly) peaceful Kurdish northern zone of Iraq. It's the story of a man who runs for the midwife when his wife goes into labor, and who is arrested on the way by the brutal national police who believe he has been involved in a political demonstration. He is jailed for ten years with no news of his wife and child. Released after ten years, he goes in search of them. It sounds Oscary for sure, but I predicted the Iraqi nominee would be shortlisted last year and it wasn't. The film could surprise, but production standards may not be high enough for this category.

8. BEAUFORT (Israel)
7. KING OF FIRE (Thailand)
6. MONGOL (Kazakhstan)

Three stories of war and invasion, two ancient and one modern.
"Beaufort" was ISRAEL's second choice, after "The Band's Visit" was disqualified. I actually think the Academy will like claustrophobic war film about Israeli troops stationed in Southern Lebanon.....However, the film does have its detractors and the film will probably fail to get enough "top votes" to secure a nomination. As I've said with other films, there's simply too much competition, and Israel didn't even think this was their best film of the year.
KAZAKHSTAN and THAILAND have sent two expensive epics that feature beautiful period costumes, amazing sets and exciting action. Thailand's is about "King Naresuan", one of Thailand's most celebrated kings. Kazakhstan's is a biopic of the young Genghis Khan. They'll easily score a lot of high-ranking votes from this committee, but I'm not confident they can make the shortlist. Higher-profile epic films like "House of Flying Daggers" and 'Devdas" (which were both beautifully made, but only okay films) and "Curse of the Golden Flower" (which was better) showed that this committee is not automatically dazzled by pretty sets. However, Kazakhstan's "Nomad" was rumored to have come close to a shortlist spot last year an both films are supposed to be surprisingly accessible. They're likely to get lost in the mix, but could surprise.

All of these movies definitely have their fans, (Korea & Lebanon in particular) and have a chance at getting the usual "Asian" slot on the shortlist/nominee list. (However, Asia is sometimes shut out completely; last year the unofficial "Asian" slot went to Canada's Hindi-language film).

5. SECRET SUNSHINE (South Korea)
4. I JUST DIDN'T DO IT (Japan)
3. CARAMEL (Lebanon)

As mentioned before, everyone is buzzing about "Secret Sunshine" and "Caramel". SOUTH KOREA is without a doubt the world's greatest film nation that has never been nominated in this category. Though they keep submitting Oscar-worthy films ("Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring", "The King & the Clown", "Oasis" etc.) they keep getting snubbed year after year. "Secret Sunshine" will probably end up missing out too, although it does have its fans. This award-winning drama (including Best Actress at Cannes) about a young widow trying to start a new life with her young son in her husband's hometown may be a little too slow for it's own good. (I haven't seen it yet but own the DVD).

Not sure why nobody is talking about JAPAN's film. I'd say it has at least as good a chance as the muchtalked about "Secret Sunshine". Masayuki Suo ("Shall We Dance?") has made a scathing indictment of the Japanese judicial system in which an innocent man (accused of groping a woman on the subway) has his future ruined by a system in which you are "guilty until proven innocent" (not officially....but in practice) and the judge loses face if you are not convicted. I think this may resonate with the committee. It is definitely a dark horse.

LEBANON has sent a light, romantic comedy about a Beirut beauty salon that has charmed audiences worldwide. Movies this "fluffy" generally do not make the finals, but they have in the past: "Everybody Famous", "Zus & Zo"......"Mediterraneo" even won. It is competing for the unofficial "fluff" slot with Switzerland. Incidentally, my friend from Beirut joked that an Oscar nomination for "Caramel" would shock and excite Lebanon so much it could potentially end the recent violence there.
VIETNAM, the only Southeast Asian nation to ever be nominated for an Oscar, is back in the running with "White Silk Dress" a beautiful (and long) epic drama following an impoverished family through the decades of the mid-20th century and their attachment to an "ao dai" dress- a prized family heirloom. High production values and just the right amount of melodrama (or maybe too much??) could potentially vault Vietnam to a shortlist spot for the second time.

That said, I really think that while all four of these films are Asia's best bets, they are all long-shots at best. All of them could easily be snubbed, which is a shame.


(Though still likely to be defeated by a slew of European films!)
Ironically, "Asia"'s best chance comes from a country from the Western world (like last year's Canadian film). "Home Song Stories" is an Australian film about immigrants from China. It is in a mix of Chinese & English and apparently just barely qualified as being "over 50%" in a foreign language. This bodes well. "Foreign-Language" films with a lot of English dialogue tend to do well in this category- view "The Wedding Banquet", "Merry Christmas", "No Man's Land" and "Four Days in September" and you'll see what I mean. On top of that, it's a good film. Starring well-known Chinese actress/director Joan Chen (also seen this year in "Lust Caution"), it is a semi-autobiographical story of a Chinese immigrant who brings her family to Australia when she marries an Australian man. She becomes romantically involved with an illegal Chinese immigrant who also has eyes for her eldest daughter. "Home Song Stories" has the best chance of any movie from the Asia-Pacific region to beat off the competition from the strong European contenders.
We'll soon find out if any of the Asians can advance this year! Although I haven't watched any of them yet, I've got the nominees from China, Hong Kong, India, Korea (as well as Japan, but sadly no subtitles) at home and have ordered the nominees from Australia, Singapore and Taiwan. Expect the nominees from Israel, Kazakhstan and Lebanon to soon get released in the West.

No comments: