Wednesday, January 7, 2009

2008 Contenders from Asia & the Pacific (18 Films)


Asia usually is lucky to manage even one spot on the Oscar shortlist, but they have a good lineup this year. Will Israel's high-profile "Bashir" hog the one slot to the disadvantage of three relatively unknown but very much acclaimed films from Japan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan?

First, the statistics:

Number of countries invited: 29

Number of countries submitting films: 18, including first-time entrant Jordan which was not officially invited, and Afghanistan, which returned after a three-year absence.

Number of countries opting out: 12. Vietnam announced that they wanted to compete but that they didn't have any films that met the screening requirements. Australia, Indonesia, Iraq and Nepal also opted out for unknown reasons. As for the others, five- Bhutan, Cambodia, Fiji, Malaysia and Sri Lanka- have only submitted once in Oscar history and two more- Mongolia and Tajikistan- have only ever submitted two times. The most surprising absences? Indonesia's film production is up, and they've sent films 7 of the last 10 years.....Australia was expected to submit the Pashto-language "Son of a Lion", Bhutan had the well-reviewed "Golden Cup: The Legacy" , Nepal's supernatural "Kagbeni" is said to be the best movie ever made by a native Nepali director, and Sri Lanka had probably it's best film year ever, including expensive period drama "Aba" and Italian co-production "Manchan".

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

Number of Foreign Languages Represented: 16- Arabic (3 films), Bengali, Cuyonon, Hebrew, Hindi, Japanese (2 films), Kazakh, Korean, Kyrgyz, Mandarin (3 films), Persian (2 films), Russian, Tagalog, Taiwanese,
Tamil, Thai. Some films, including Philippines, Taiwan and Kazakhstan, are multi-lingual.

Country with the Best Shot at a Nomination: Difficult to say...I keep wavering between Israel and Japan.

Country with the Least Shot at a Nomination: Most of these films have little chance, but least of all is Bangladesh's lackluster melodrama "Aha!"

Number of Comedies: 2- Kazakhstan (a true comedy) and Taiwan (a romantic comedy-drama)

Oscar History: 9 of the 18 countries have been nominated before....The only director with a previous Oscar nomination is Iran's Majid Majidi, who received Iran's only Oscar nomination ten years ago for "Children of Heaven". Afghanistan's Siddiq Barmak ("Osama"), Israel's Ari Folman ("Saint Clara") Lebanon's Philippe Aractingi ("Bosta") and Singapore's Eric Khoo ("Be With Me") have each been nominated by their countries once before.

Number of Female Directors: Three- China's Jun Gu, Kyrgyzstan's Marie-Jaoul de Poncheville (who is from France) and Palestine's Annemarie Jacir.

Familiar Faces: The most recognizable face is obviously Aamir Khan's, the Indian superstar who directs and stars in India's "Taare Zameen Par". and fans of marial arts cinema will surely recognize Donnie Yen ("Hero", "Shanghai Knights", "Blade II") in the Hong Kong submission. Judy Ann Santos, a major star in her native Philippines, co-stars and co-produces "Ploning". Other recognizable faces include Marina Golbahari (who played the young protagonist in "Osama") playing a small part in "The Opium War" and the entire Chinese 2008 women's gymnastic team in the documentary "Dream Weavers".

Tough Choices: Both China and Hong Kong snubbed two high-profile big-budget period epics "The Warlords" and "Red Cliff" (both China-HK co-productions)....India snubbed Aishwarya Rai's period romance "Jodhaa Akhbar"....Israel had a touch choice and decided not to send funeral drama "Seven Days"....Japan wisely opted not to send Hayao Miyazaki's latest anime, "Ponyo on the Cliff", which would not have gone over well with the Oscar Committee (Japan has sent anime to the committee twice in the 1990s). And I was most shocked that royalist Thailand did not send "Where the Miracle Happens", written and directed by a beloved Thai princess.

Controversies: "The Opium War" is said to be more than 50% in English..."Crossing" was the subject of a plagiarism lawsuit (since dismissed) that almost led to the film's withdrawal. The low-budget "Tingya", which was the runner-up to be India's official entry tried to send itself to the Academy as an independent entry, but was not accepted.

Number of countries I predicted correctly: Eight - Iran, Israel, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Palestine and Singapore though I came close to getting Afghanistan, Bangladesh and India, and I predicted the entire 5-film shortlist in Korea correctly (though I guessed "Sunny").

Film I'm most looking forward to seeing: I've seen four of the films already (Bangladesh, Hong Kong, India and Japan)...I'm excited to see a lot of the others, but my #1 pick would be Kazakhstan's "Tulpan" (which I unsuccessfully tried to see at the thoroughly unfriendly and incompetent Tokyo Film Festival).

Now to the Asian nominees.....The movies can be divided into two neat categories: Seven are definitely in running for a spot on the shortlist. Nine are not. As I've mentioned repeatedly, the Oscar committee normally hates Oscar...While there were two Asian movies on last year's shortlist, they were not typically "Asian" movies...Israel tends to consider itself a European country in the cinema world. Kazakhstan's director was a dual citizen born in Russia.

I wish the Asian films "Good luck"!

First are the nine also-rans:

18. BANGLADESH- "Aha!"
17. AFGHANISTAN- "Opium War"

First of all, I applaud developing countries like Bangladesh and Afghanistan for submitting films to this competition against heavyweights like France and Italy. Like the Olympics, this competition allows their best filmmakers to be seen by the Academy and to compete alongside world's best. They may not be contenders for an Oscar, but they increase the visibility of their ideas, their language and their films to a wider audience than they would otherwise have, including an automatic invitation to the Palm Springs Film Festival.

Having said that, "Aha", a melodrama about a middle-aged man living alone in a once-grand manor house who is surprised when his daughter arrives back at home from the US after fleeing an abusive marriage, is simply not Oscar calibre. I've seen the film, and it doesn't stand a chance. Siddiq Barmak, who directed the heartbreaking "Osama" which probably came very close to getting an Oscar nomination five years ago, has sent his second feature "Opium War" to the competition. "Opium War" is about two downed American soldiers in Afghanistan who end up being helped by a local family. Although it won the Rome Film Festival, reviews have been mostly poor, with many faulting poor acting by the two American leads and a mediocre script...It's also roughly half in English, and the Oscar screening had a subtitle problem, so you can forget it.


16. SINGAPORE- "My Magic"
15. TAIWAN- "Cape No. 7"
14. HONG KONG- "Painted Skin"
13. PHILIPPINES- "Ploning"
12. THAILAND- "Love of Siam"

Wire-fu vampires! Authentic feats of masochism! Low-budget soap opera! Teeny-bopper romance! None of these films scream "Oscar", and none of them have gotten reviews that would allow them to transcend their genres and contend for an Oscar nomination....

Both Taiwan and Thailand have both submitted romantic comedy-dramas featuring a lot of local pop music (which will probably not go over well the committee). Both the gay-themed "Love of Siam" and the two parallel, heterosexual love stories of "Cape No. 7" were box office hits in their home countries, and both are said to be entertaining films, but they are wholly mainstream films without critical appeal. Taiwan's film is said to have impressive production values, but also a lot of obscure local pop culture references that will baffle foreign audiences. Singapore's film (in Tamil) was fairly well-received at Cannes, but this story of an alcoholic magician trying to clean himself up for the sake of his son features a lot of graphic acts of masochism (no need to explain here, but not entirely uncommon in some South Asian cultures) that make it a difficult film to watch. The Philippines has sent another romance, "Ploning", to the competition but once again, a limited budget and overacting make this an also-ran.

I've actually seen the Hong Kong submission, "Painted Skin", a big-budget period action film featuring a female fox demon who eats human hearts, who poses as a beautiful woman to seduce a handsome prince who is already happily married . It looks good, but it's purely a "for entertainment purposes only" action movie that stands little chance with critics.


11. PALESTINE- "Salt of this Sea"
10. CHINA- "Dream Weavers"
9. INDIA- "Taare Zameen Par"
8. LEBANON- "Under the Bombs"

These four stand a slightly better chance than the seven Asian films listed above, but they still are completely out of the running for an Oscar nomination.

Considering the political situation in the Middle East, it's not surprising that both Lebanon and Palestine have sent films that show how current conflicts are affecting ordinary people. Palestine's "Salt of this Sea" tells the story of an Arab-American woman who returns to her homeland to collect an inheritance, only to encounter problems due to the Israeli occupation. Lebanon's "Under the Bombs" was shot against the backdrop of the chaos of the 2006 Lebanese war with Israel. It's a gritty, heart-wrenching road picture about a woman and a taxi driver looking for her 6-year son amidst the wreckage of the conflict. However, both films have gotten mixed reviews (Lebanon better than Palestine).

China made the surprising choice to send nationalist Olympic documentary "Dream Weavers" to the competition. I don't think documentaries stand much chance here (Israel's "Waltz with Bashir may have some luck...see below)...."Dream Weavers" is supposed to be a well-constructed film, but some may be turned off by the nationalist slant, and deem it to be Chinese propaganda.

Some people (mostly from India) say that "Taare Zameen Par", an uplifting drama about a failing 7-year old student with dyslexia, is sure to get a nomination. I've seen the film, and although the musical numbers are well-integrated and although there's nothing wrong with it per se, it's clearly an "average" (and long!) film with little chance against the strong competition here.

All nine of these films can be counted out NOW.


7. KOREA- "Crossing"
6. IRAN- "Song of Sparrows"
5. JORDAN- "Captain Abu Raed"

I have a feeling that these three dramas are not going to make the shortlist, although they may place high enough to come into play for one of the lower rungs.

I haven't seen "Crossing" yet, (once again....I could have seen it if not for the incompetence of the Tokyo Film Festival where it played a few blocks from my apartment late last year) but the Korean submission is almost always deserving of an Oscar nomination. However, Oscar ignores them year after year. This year's submission is about the lives of North Korean defectors and how the families continue to suffer even living in the "paradise" of the South. It's all very moving and very baity, but I don't think reviews have been positive enough, especially considering the near-perfect Korean films that this committee has seen fit to ignore in the past.

Two Middle Eastern slice-of-life films with cute kids could surprise- Iran's "Song of Sparrows" features the life of an ostrich farmer-cum-motorcycle-taxi-driver and the difficulties of being lower middle class in modern-day Iran. Majidi is being submitted by Iran for the fourth time. He got an Oscar nomination for "Children of Heaven" but not for the superior "Colour of Paradise". I have a feeling "Sparrows" will be too "small" for the shortlist, but one never knows.

If nominated, Jordan could become the Cinderella story of 2009. Although Jordan has no real film industry of its own, "Captain Abu Raed" has managed to appear at a number of festivals, and secured a US released almost completely on word of mouth. Jordan requested and was accepted by AMPAS to send their first-ever film. "Abu Raed" is about an airport janitor who becomes a hero to a bunch of local kids who mistakenly believe him to be a pilot. Nobody seems to have a bad word to say about "Abu Raed" and the old man-small kid dynamic has been proven to win this committee over time and time again....I have a feeling "Abu Raed" will be one of those films that just miss out on the shortlist, but it's had a good run and could definitely surprise.


4. KYRGYZSTAN- "Tengri"
3. JAPAN- "Okuribito" (Departures)
2. KAZAKHSTAN- "Tulpan"

I think one of these films can make the Oscar shortlist....But which one? The way I look at it, they may very well be in a virtual dead heat for the ninth and final spot on the list.

None of these films is well-known to filmgoers worldwide (although "Tulpan" has had some international success), but they have gotten universally good reviews from those few people who have seen them. The remote and obscure ex-Soviet republics of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have both selected films that beautifully showcase their rugged natural scenery. Kyrgyzstan's "Tengri" is a "chase drama" about a Kazakh man who returns to his native village and he falls in love with a married woman whose husband is fighting for the Soviet army in Afghanistan. The two elope, much to the consternation of the husband who soon returns. Kazakhstan's "Tulpan" is a charming comedy about a boy with big ears trying to woo a bride in a rural part of the country where there are almost no young women.

I live in Japan and I have seen Japan's comic drama "Departures", which is a really excellent and touching film about a man who loses his job as a concert cellist due to the economic downturn in Japan and who returns to his home province where he gets a well-paid but socially stigmatized job performing the ritual washing of bodies for funerals. Think of it as a Japanese "Six Feet Under"...It's funny, it's sad, it presses all the right buttons....I hope it makes it.

All of these films are supposed to be absolute cinematic gems (I can vouch for Japan). I keep changing my mine as to which one has the best chance. As of today, I'll say that Kazakhstan's slightly higher profile may let them squeak ahead to the next round.


1. ISRAEL- "Waltz with Bashir"

I don't think the Academy's Foreign Film committee will select Israel's genre-bending animated documentary "Waltz with Bashir". It's too innovative and too difficult a film for them to get their head around. From what I have heard and seen about "Bashir", I don't think I'm likely to like the film either. Israel makes some great movies (see their 2004 submission, the harrowing family drama "Campfire") but I thought last year's Oscar nominee "Beaufort" was God awful. So, why am I ranking "Bashir" No. 1 in Asia, even against the well-received Japanese and Central Asian submissions? Because the Executive committee is sure to select "Bashir" if the committee rejects it, in an effort to avoid a "Four Months"-style controversy. I'm certain of it. Mark it down for one of the three Wild Card spots, whether it deserves it or not (and while I don't expect to like the film, I acknowledge that most people feel it does deserve to be there....)

1 comment:

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