The Asian countries (courtesy of Japan) should be proud to have won the award last year. That was only the second time an Asian film has won the Oscar since the award was created (the other was "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" in 2001). "Departures" may not have been the very Best Foreign Film of 2008, but it was a great film and was definitely the best of the five selected nominees. Most people who complain that the grumpy, grainy, talky and overrated "Waltz with Bashir" should have won the award are probably the same people who haven't seen "Departures". I'm so proud of Japan!
Most of this year's Asian films don't stand any chance at all....but three are major threats....
Here's the countdown:
DIDN'T MAKE IT PAST THE STARTING GATE
17. MONGOLIA- "By the Will of Genghis Khan"
Oscar voters might have had a case of deja vu had they had the chance to watch this film- a lavish biography of the life of Genghis Khan with an international cast and a Russian director....It sounds just like "Mongol", submitted by Kazakhstan in 2007. However, the film did not appear on Oscar's official list, despite reports that Mongolia had selected it to represent them. Filmed mostly in Russia, by a Russian director in a mixture of Russian and a number of other regional languages, with Russian and American money, the film was certainly not a majority-Mongolian production. However, Mongolia and Mongolians were involved and one wonders why AMPAS couldn't be a bit more flexible to give a small filmmaking country a chance to get their name out there. Oh well. I'd be curious to know if AMPAS actually received it and rejected it. There's no news out there.
16. PHILIPPINES - "Grandpa is Dead"
15. THAILAND- "Best of Times"
14. BANGLADESH- "Beyond the Circle"
Bangladesh, the Philippines and Thailand have never been nominated for an Oscar, and they will not be nominated this year either....Bangladesh's "Beyond the Circle" tells the story of a naive Hindu musician who moves to the big city to pursue his career....The Philippines chose a broadly acted comedy- "Grandpa is Dead"- about five siblings preparing for the funeral of their beloved father....Thailand chose a romantic comedy-drama about two couples- one young, one old- a stray dog with painted eyebrows and an overall theme of memory. None of these films have gotten particularly good reviews, particularly "Grandpa"....which has so much hysterical screaming and local humor that it will struggle to appeal to anybody on the board. I've also seen the Thai nominee...it's not a bad film but it's too long and (ironically) it's largely forgettable. Bangladeshi films don't have the money or resources to compete in this category, and "Beyond the Circle" hasn't gotten reviews as strong as the same director's "On the Wings of Dreams" which failed to make the cute in the 2007 Foreign Film competition.
However, cheers to all three for competing alongside the heavyweights!
13. SRI LANKA- "The Road from Elephant Pass"
12. INDONESIA- "Jamila and the President"
11. KAZAKHSTAN- "Kelin"
10. HONG KONG- "Prince of Tears"
These four films may well be interesting and worth watching, but none of them have the power to convince anyone that they are the best films of the year and most of them have barely made a blip on the international film circuit.
Indonesia and Sri Lanka are back in the competition (Indonesia took last year off...Sri Lanka last submitted a film in 2003) with topical dramas dealing with ongoing political issues. The Indonesians have chosen a film based on a controversial play ("The Prostitute and the President") about a prostitute who is jailed for murdering a prominent and respected politician. It turns out that the woman has been a victim of human trafficking. Sri Lanka's film, "The Road from Elephant Pass", is set against the backdrop of the country's recently ended civil war, following a senior military man and a young woman trying to cross through enemy territory. There's barely any info on either film on the web, but the trailers don't look like Oscar contenders. Production values are okay but unimpressive and the films both look a little preachy.
Hong Kong and Kazakhstan have been nominated before and their nominees are period dramas that have been seen at major festivals (Hong Kong's premiered in Venice; both were seen at Toronto). However, both have chosen films too divisive to contend for the award. Hong Kong's "Prince of Tears" is a historical drama set in Taiwan during a brutal purge against perceived Communist sympathizers. Despite the baity subject matter, reviews have not been great, and the odd juxtaposition of gay-friendly director Yonfan's pretty boys and serious Cold War politics doesn't sound like it works particularly well. Kazakhstan's "Kelin" is said to be a gorgeous costume drama about a woman married off against her will....It has no dialogue, which I don't think will play very well with the Oscar committee. Although the film looks great, reviews say that the lack of any talking begins to grate in the last half hour. You can count all four out.
9. TAIWAN- "No Puedo Vivir Sin Ti"
8. TURKEY- "I Saw the Sun"
7. CHINA- "Forever Enthralled"
6. VIETNAM- "Don't Burn It"
What makes a good film? It's not just a matter of acting and storyline....When "4 Months" missed the Oscar shortlist, a lot of people speculated that even a great film with a low budget and gritty camerawork will not make the cut due to a large contingent of Oscar voters with a technical background, who consider quality production values to be a requirements for an Oscar nominee. They have a point.
Turkey and China have selected beautifully shot films with top-notch production values. Turkey's "I Saw the Sun", is about two Kurdish families forced to leave their village due to war, and their subsequent attempts to adjust to difficult new lives in Istanbul and Norway respectively. China's "Forever Enthralled" is a lavish biopic about one of the premiere stars of Beijing opera, and its director Chen Kaige was nominated for a similarly themed film ("Farewell My Concubine") in 1994.
Taiwan and Vietnam have chosen small-scale dramas based on true stories. Taiwan's independent black-and-white drama "No Puedo Vivir Sin Ti" has no stars and a slow pace, but it's a powerful film about a poor, nearly homeless man whose custody over his beloved daughter (the mother abandoned the family) is threatened by government red tape. It just won Best Picture at the Golden Horse awards. Vietnam's "Don't Burn It" is about a idealistic young female doctor whose life is cut short in 1970, during the Vietnam War. Despite arguably stronger reviews than the Chinese and Turkish films, both films are likely to get lost in the shuffle.
Put these two groups together and you might get an Oscar nominee, but none of these films are on anybody's "Best of the Year" list, and with 65 films in the running, they're basically out of luck. Vietnam's patriotic drama, which won the Audience Award at the Fukuoka Film Festival, over the Iranian favorite "About Elly", has the best chance of breaking out.
DARK HORSE POSSIBILITIES
5. INDIA- "Harishchandrachi Factory"
4. JAPAN- "Nobody to Watch Over Me"
For the first-time since the inauguration of the award in 1956, Japan is the "returning champion". Their film- "Nobody to Watch Over Me" -is pretty obscure (so was last year's "Okuribito")- but it's supposed to be very good. A police officer is assigned to protect a teenager from public reprisals, after her older brother is arrested for a couple of brutal murders. India, whose media obsesses annually over India's lack of Oscar success, has sent another obscure film- "Harishchandrachi Factory". The film is not a Bollywood musical like many of India's past nominees. Instead, the film is a loving retelling of the production of India's first-ever feature film- which eventually led to the world's largest film industry. The film is in the regional Marathi language (spoken in the state around Mumbai's Bollywood). There's not much info on the net, but despite a low budget, the film's subject matter may well be able to charm the selection committee. Japan and India are dark horses, but shouldn't be counted out entirely.
3. SOUTH KOREA- "Mother"
2. ISRAEL- "Ajami"
These two crowd-pleasing and suspenseful dramas are both very much in the running for the shortlist. Both countries are trying to make Oscar history in their respective countries- Israel has been nominated for the past two years in a row, and would like to achieve a third consecutive nomination (quite difficult these days with so many countries competing....) for "Ajami", a drama co-directed by an Israeli Jewish and Israeli Arab director, and which is the first Israeli submission primarily in Arabic. "Ajami" is supposed to be great- it's a thriller following a number of intersecting stories in modern-day, multi-ethnic Israel. It beat out the internationally favored "Lebanon" at the Israeli Ophir Awards and stands a good chance at being nominated by either the large or elite committee. "Mother" has gotten more attention, but stands a slightly weaker chance. The film is about a devoted mother trying to prove her mentally disabled son is innocent of a brutal murder. Reviews have been good, but the film has a few too many detractors to make the Top Six in the large committee. Korea has an Oscar curse....Also, despite sending excellent films each and every year, Oscar has yet to reward them with a nomination. Why? No clue. Anyway, "Mother" might very well make the shortlist, but will likely miss out on the Top Five.....Or as always, the unfortunate Koreans may be snubbed again.
GOOD CHANCE AT A NOMINATION
1. IRAN- "About Elly"
I'm ranking "About Elly" #1 in Asia because they have a strong chance at qualifying through either the larger committee and the elite committee. "Elly" is about a group of eight modern, young Iranians on a beach holiday, and what happens when one girl among the group (Elly) mysteriously vanishes. The film has gotten universally positive reviews, and has managed to win some awards. It's supposed to be accessible and interesting, and already has a US distribution deal. It would be a high-profile choice- artistic, thought-provoking and also topical, and would be only the second film from Iran to ever advance in this competition. I say it's in.
Now, the statistics:
Number of countries that have participated in the past: 31
Number of countries accepted into the competition: 16
Number of countries disqualified: 1- MONGOLIA announced "By the Will of Genghis Khan", which was clearly a majority-Russian production (director, writers, language), but which had minority Mongolian input. I assume it was quietly disqualified.
Number of countries opting out: Eight important ones: AFGHANISTAN, IRAQ, KYRGYZSTAN, LEBANON, NEPAL, PALESTINE, SINGAPORE and TAJIKISTAN...The Lebanese (who have been a regular participant recently) and the Palestinians (who had a great film year) were particular surprises. Four other countries have only ever submitted films once apiece (Bhutan, Cambodia, Jordan and Malaysia) and 2 others haven't sent films in 30 years (Kuwait and Pakistan).
Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: Not many at all....Three or four.
Number of Foreign Languages Represented: 16. Arabic, Bengali, Farsi, Hakka, Hebrew, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin Chinese, Marathi, Sinhala, Tagalog, Taiwanese, Thai, Turkish and Vietnamese. The movies from Israel and Taiwan are multi-lingual. Interestingly enough, the Indian movie is in Marathi, the Israeli movie is majority Arabic, and the Kazakh movie has no spoken dialogue.
Highest profile films: The most well-known are probably China's "Forever Enthralled", Iran's "About Elly" and Korea's "Mother"
Country with the Best Shot at a Nomination: IRAN's "About Elly".
Country with the Least Shot at a Nomination: PHILIPPINES' poorly reviewed "Grandfather is Dead".....Wrong genre, and too much local humor
Number of Comedies: Three- India and the Philippines plus Thailand, which sent a comedy-drama.
Oscar History: China's Chen Kaige was nominated for an Oscar for "Farewell My Concubine", representing British Hong Kong back in 1994. Golam Rabbany Biplob represented Bangladesh in 2007 but didn't get nominated.
Number of Female Directors: Only one- Former Indonesian political prisoner Ratna Sarumpaet.
Familiar Faces: The biggest name cast comes from China's "Forever Enthralled" which costars Leon Lai, Zhang Ziyi and Japan's Masanobu Ando. Christine Hakim, the grande dame of Indonesian cinema, came back from semi-retirement for "Jamila & the President". Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani co-starred with Russell Crowe in "Body of Lies", and caused a controversy at home by appearing unveiled. 70-year old Kenneth Tsang appears in Hong Kong's "Prince of Tears"; he's a familiar face after appearing in "Anna & the King", "The Replacement Killers", "Rush Hour 2", and a slew of John Woo films.
Tough Choices: CHINA foolishly chose tepid opera drama "Forever Enthralled" over the acclaimed "City of Life and Death" about the rape of Nanking. China doesn't like controversy and "City" was presumably too divisive. ISRAEL's Academy was criticized for choosing "Ajami" over Venice Film Festival winner "Lebanon", but in retrospect this may have been a wise choice (we'll see in January). KAZAKHSTAN might very well have been nominated for acclaimed historical drama "Gift to Stalin", but chose a strange new film in its place. THE PHILIPPINES did not shortlist Brillante Mendoza's films and snubbed favorite "Lola" for an odd gay-interest comedy. HONG KONG ignored their Best Picture winner "Ip Man", while Taiwan turned down aboriginal drama "1895". Sri Lanka flip-flopped its decision, originally announcing "Flowers in the Sky" before switching to "The Road from Elephant Pass".....this meant snubbing crowd-pleasing comedy "Machan" twice (they say they believed it was ineligible due to its Italian director, but the producer and crew were all Sri Lankan).
Controversies: As mentioned earlier, Sri Lanka changed its mind, Mongolia appears to have been disqualified and the Palestinians opted out.....According to press reports, the director of "Lola", a rival film, told press that his film would be repping the Philippines, but this turned out to be a false rumor. Taiwan threatened to withdraw a film subsidy from "Prince of Tears" if it competed at the Oscars for Hong Kong. "About Elly" was almost disqualified from the Fajr Iran Film Festival, but it was reinstated, reportedly due to pressure from President Ahmadinejad who (strangely enough) liked the film.
Number of countries I predicted correctly: 6- China, Indonesia, Iran, Israel, Korea and Vietnam. (China and Israel were tough...) I came really close with Japan, having it in second place.
Films I'm most looking forward to seeing: I've seen the films from Japan (A-), Taiwan (B), Turkey (B), Thailand (C+) and the Philippines (C-). The DVDs from China and Korea are already out so I should see those soon. I'm especially excited to see the nominees from front-runners Iran and Korea.
Last year's race: I saw eleven of the nineteen Asian submissions last year. They range from Below Average (Bangladesh) to Average (Hong Kong, India, Israel, Taiwan and Turkey) to Quite Good (Kazakhstan, Lebanon and Thailand), to two excellent films deserving of Oscar nominations- Japan's Oscar-winning "Departures and Korea's tearjerker North Korean refugee drama- "Crossing".