Great news! AFGHANISTAN is in! After being disqualified, they were allowed in at the 66th official entry, and will be one of the final films screenings for the Oscar committee, which end January 17th.
Here are the seventeen films from Asia:
NO CHANCE IN HELL:
17. IRAN- "Farewell Baghdad"
16. PHILIPPINES- "Noy"
15. INDONESIA- "What a Funny Country This Is"
14. KAZAKHSTAN- "Strayed"
13. BANGLADESH- "Third Person Singular Number"
First, I congratulate all of these countries for entering the competition. These five may have absolutely no chance to make the shortlist, but it doesn't mean they are bad films....I hope to see all of them this year, and I would probably never even know about them if not for the Foreign Oscar race.
Most of these films come from countries with developing film industries (all except IRAN), all were made on extremely limited budgets, and all of the films suffer from one or more major problems.
The PHILIPPINES has selected, "Noy", a weird docu-drama that has gotten mixed-to-negative reviews, about a man from a poor and troubled family (fiction, with famous actors playing the roles) who becomes a documentarian for the presidential campaign of Noynoy Aquino (featuring real documentary footage). Middling reviews, and a plot requiring knowledge of local politics = OUT.
IRAN has selected "Farewell Baghdad", an anti-war film about an American boxer who joins the US army to avoid going to prison for murder....He ends up going AWOL in Iraq where he meets a suicide bomber. It's said to be visually interesting, but with a confusing plot, middling reviews and zero visibility on the Film Fest circuit. OUT.
INDONESIA has chosen a "heartwarming" comedy about an unemployed college graduate who tries to reform a group of child pickpockets. I've seen clips, and it simply doesn't have the production values or the gravitas to make the cut. OUT.
KAZAKHSTAN has been shortlisted twice in the past three years, and this year they've chosen the intriguing psychological thriller, "Strayed". A man's wife and child disappear into thin air in the middle of nowhere during a cross-country trip across the steppes. Some people like the film, but a lot of people hate it. Way too divisive. OUT.
BANGLADESH has the strongest film in the bottom tier..."Third Person Singular Number", about a liberated young woman trying to maintain her independence in a conservative society, was a major domestic hit and probably one of the best movies to come out of Bangladesh (I had the pleasure of visiting this beautiful country in October, where I picked up the DVD). Like Indonesia though, production values simply don't meet Oscar's standards, although it's an improvement from previous years. OUT.
GOOD, BUT OUT OF THEIR LEAGUE:
12. SOUTH KOREA- "Barefoot Dream"
11. KYRGYZSTAN- "The Light Thief"
10. HONG KONG- "Echoes of the Rainbow"
9. ISRAEL- "The Human Resources Manager"
8. TAIWAN- "Monga"
These four gentle comedies and one intense gangster drama are also certain NOT to make the Oscar shortlist. HONG KONG's "Echoes of the Rainbow" is a nostalgic look at a middle-class family living life in the 1960s under British rule, and what happens when their popular eldest son is diagnosed with cancer. It won a Crystal Bear at Berlin and got mostly good reviews, but couldn't even managed a Best Picture nod at this year's local HK Film Awards.....ISRAEL's "Human Resources Manager" is a droll comedy-drama about an HR Manager at an Israeli bakery who journeys to distant Romania to ensure a proper burial for an employee killed in a terrorist attack. It was the upset winner at this year's Israeli Film Awards, but reviews have been decidedly mixed. ISRAEL is popular with the Oscar committee for some strange reason (I liked "Ajami", but hated "Waltz with Bashir" and "Beaufort") but I don't see this getting through. KOREA's "Barefoot Dream" is a feel-good sports movie about an unscrupulous Korean entrepeneur trying to make money selling high-end sneakers to poor street kids in Timor-Leste. Although it is good at pressing the emotional buttons, it has not wowed the critics and is an odd choice to represent Korea. Unstable KYRGYZSTAN has sent "The Light Thief", about a rural man who "steals" electricity to provide to his poor village. It won Best Picture at the Eurasia International Film Fest in Kazakhstan, and will play at MoMA in NYC this week....It's supposed to be a fun movie to watch and Kyrgyzstan is rumored to have come close to being nominated before, but at a sparse 80 minutes and with 65 bigger movies in the mix, this "small" film is likely out of luck. TAIWAN's "Monga" is probably the best film of the bunch- a smartly made, visually impressive gangster movie about the rise and fall of five youths in the Taipei underworld. I hate gangster movies, and yet I loved this film. For Oscar though, reviews aren't good enough and it's simply the wrong genre to succeed here.
UNLIKELY DARK HORSES:
7. AFGHANISTAN- "Black Tulip"
6. INDIA- "Peepli [Live]"
5. IRAQ- "Son of Babylon"
AFGHANISTAN's film "Black Tulip" is truly a labor of love....The film was made under difficult, war-like conditions by an Afghan-American woman who then had to confront the bureaucracy of the Academy that at first disqualified the film on a technicality. Sonia Nassery Cole has also proved savvy at marketing the film, getting it an Oscar-qualifying run in a Los Angeles theatre, a low-key campaign for Best Song, a number of sold-out promotional screenings, and an amazing trailer. I can't wait to see the film but I've heard from a friend that the film is definitely an amateur effort...A fine first film, but probably not an Oscar contender.
IRAQ has been cited on many Oscar sites as a potential nominee based on its stirring, Oscar subject matter- a Kurdish grandmother and a little boy search for the boy's father amidst the rubble of 2003 Iraq. Again, it's hard to find fault with films from this part of the world which have to deal with so many problems just to get their movies made....However, I've heard that audiences believe the film is just not interesting enough to make the Top Nine. I'm sad I missed it at the Arab Film Festival here in DC...
As for INDIA, "Peepli [Live]" is a good film. It's a jet-black comedy where you laugh out loud and then feel guilty for laughing. A farmer deep in debt learns that his family will receive a great deal of compensation money if he commits suicide- enough to save the farm. When the rapacious Indian national media learns of his dilemma, they turn the simple farmer's village into a media madhouse. The film takes a while to get going, but gets better as it goes along. I saw it with Indian-Americans who say the film brilliantly satirizes what goes on in Indian government and media. Probably not good enough, but who knows?
DARK HORSES FOR THE ELITE COMMITTEE:
4. THAILAND- "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives"
3. TURKEY- "Honey"
Neither one of these film has any chance with the mainstream committee, but they might make the next round solely on the basis of their surprise wins at Berlin and Cannes, respectively....The elite committee may choose either or both films to avoid the embarrassment of skipping a major festival winner.
I haven't seen either film, but I think the elite committee should pass.
THAILAND's "Uncle Boonmee" may have won Cannes, but it's one of the worst-reviewed Cannes winners in years. This surreal, dream-like film with red-eyed monkeys, sex with fish and little plot is a film I'm looking forward to seeing, but not one that most people seem to think is deserving of an Oscar nomination.
TURKEY's "Bal" (Honey), the winner of Berlinale 2010, has a better shot. The story focuses on a 6-year old boy in search of his father, a beekeeper who has disappeared. The story is slow, the landcape is pretty and the kids are cute. Hard to judge how much weight the elite committee puts on awards (I think, a lot) but that Golden Bear may get it through.
2. JAPAN- "Confessions"
JAPAN's "Confessions" is supposed to be one of the most deserving and brilliant films of the year. Its director, Tetsuya Nakashima, directed "Memories of Matsuko", my favorite foreign-language film of all-time. The film focuses on a young female teacher who hatches a plot of cold-blooded revenge against the pupils responsible for the death of her young daughter...and who it seems are now in her class. Reviews have been excellent. Can this film be another "Departures"? Right now, I'm guessing sadly no....I have the film ranked #11 and only nine films make the shortlist...But I have my fingers crossed....
1. CHINA- "Aftershock”
CHINA's earthquake drama has it all. Amazing special effects (rarely seen in this category), Western production values, emotional drama and an engaging plot. The real star of the film is the terrible Tangshan Earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands of people in 1976, but the emotional story comes in the form of a woman whose twin children are trapped beneath the rubble. Rescuers tell her that due to the placement of the debris, rescuing one child will mean the likely death of the other. Great reviews and lots of Oscar bait here. The film got a US release which apparently entailed cutting a half-hour, but you can buy the DVD in NYC Chinatown, which I will watch next week.
Now, the statistics:
Number of countries that have participated in the past: 33
Number of countries participating this year: 17
Number of countries disqualified: One....but then AMPAS changed its mind.....AFGHANISTAN's "Black Tulip" managed to survive the kidnapping and mutilation of its original lead actress, a dangerous film shoot in Afghanistan, and a makeshift cinematic run in Kabul to qualify for the Oscars. AMPAS originally refused to accept it because they said it wasn't selected by the official Afghan film body designated by the Oscars (who was it submitted by?) but it appeared on the screening schedule about two months after the official announcement. Good, because the films looks great!
Number of countries opting out: Most of the other 16 countries are not regular participants in the category....Pakistan hasn't sent a film in forty years! The most notable absences this year were last year's shortlister AUSTRALIA (which had no non-English films this year) and VIETNAM, which has sent films four of the past five years, and which announced that most of its best films of the year didn't meet AMPAS screening requirements. Also absent: SRI LANKA, which sent a film last year...previous nominees NEPAL and PALESTINE ..... plus LEBANON, MONGOLIA and SINGAPORE which have sent multiple films in the past ten years.
Biggest mistake? None were likely to be nominated, but MONGOLIA had a new Byambasuren Davaa ("Story of a Weeping Camel") film they could have sent, SINGAPORE's "Sandcastle" got good notices at Cannes Critics Week, JORDAN 's tiny film industry could have been buffeted with costume drama "Cherkess" and the UNITED ARAB EMIRATES could have sent a film for the first time with multi-lingual "City of Life".
Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: Not many....Three with a decent shot....three more with barely any. The eleven others are out of the running.
Number of Foreign Languages Represented: Three films in three different Chinese languages (Cantonese, Mandarin and Taiwanese) plus one each in Arabic, Bangla, Dari, Filipino, Hindi, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Kyrgyz, Russian, Thai and Turkish....Two Middle Eastern films are multilingual....Kurdish/Arabic (Iraq) and Hebrew/Romanian (Israel)
Highest profile film: THAILAND's "Uncle Boonmee" hasn't gotten the best reviews, but it did win the Grand Prix at Cannes.
Country with the Best Shot at a Nomination: CHINA's epic disaster movie, "Aftershock"
Longest Shot for a Nomination: IRAN's war drama, "Farewell Baghdad"...It's gotten very little festival play and middling reviews.
Number of Comedies: Two legit comedies....INDIA and INDONESIA, while HONG KONG, ISRAEL, KYRGYZSTAN and THAILAND sent comedy-dramas.
Number of Horror Films: KAZAKHSTAN's film is more of a "Twilight Zone" episode, rather than a horror film.
Oscar History: None of the submitted directors have ever found favor with Oscar, although four have previously competed for their countries, namely HONG KONG's Alex Law ("Painted Faces"), IRAQ's Mohamed al-Daradji ("Dreams"), KOREA's Kim Tae-gyun (the superb "Crossing") and KYRGYZSTAN's Aktan Arym Kubat (aka Aktan Abdykalykov- "Beshkempir" and "The Chimp").
Two countries have won the Oscar before (Japan and Taiwan), while six others have been nominated (China, Hong Kong, India, Iran, Israel and Kazakhstan) and one more shortlisted (Turkey). The other eight....no luck yet.
Number of Female Directors: Only two...INDIA's Anusha Rizvi and AFGHANISTAN's Sonia Nassery Cole. Congratulations to Cole, the first-ever Afghan woman in the competition!
Youngest Directors: 32-year old Mohamed al-Daradji (Iraq) is a few months younger than Anusha Rizvi (India).
Familiar Faces: Not many! Perhaps the most recognizable (and surprising) face will be Jack Scalia, who co-stars in the film from Afghanistan. Fans of Hong Kong cinema will surely recognize the two lead stars of "Echoes of the Rainbow"- Simon Yam and Sandra Ng- from dozens of other films. You probably don't know the name of Mark Ivanir, who plays the title role in Israel's "Human Resources Manager", but he has guest-starred on a lot of popular American TV shows.....Finally, you won't see his face in "Peepli Live", but Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan produced the entry from India.
Tough Choices: The toughest choice was probably for JAPAN, which had a slew of well-received films and no favorite. I think they chose wisely.....SOUTH KOREA turned down the favorite, Chang-dong Lee's "Poetry", which came in second place in their contest. ISRAEL's "Intimate Grammar" was the heavy favorite to rep the Israelis, until it went home empty-handed at the Israeli Ophir Awards....THAILAND also turned down their Best Picture winner this year, namely, "October Sonata". CHINA snubbed 3-time Oscar nominee Zhang Yimou's "A Man, A Woman and a Noodle Shop" and Chow Yun-fat's "Confucius", but that wasn't a surprise against blockbuster "Aftershock"....INDIA turned down popular hits, "My Name is Khan" and "Three Idiots".....Other films of note: "Au Revoir, Taipei" (TAIWAN), "Breath" (TURKEY), "Gold and Copper" (IRAN). As for INDONESIA, their toughest choice this year was finding a good film....
Controversies and Changes: No big controversies, although IRAN changed their selection process, allowing government bureaucrats a greater say in the selection than filmmakers, resulting in several critically acclaimed films being shunted aside for "Farewell Baghdad". BANGLADESH extended the national deadline after the favorite "Third Person Singular Number" failed to enter the race....After they filled out the paperwork, it was selected over the other two films that had registered on time. In CHINA, "Aftershock" director Feng Xiaogang said he made his movie for Chinese audiences and didn't really want his movie to go to the Oscars where it would lose, but that may have been false modesty.....TAIWAN originally chose "Hear Me", but they were disqualified when it turns out that they fibbed about their release date....
Number of countries I predicted correctly: Six, including super-hard INDIA. Also, BANGLADESH, CHINA, IRAQ, KYRGYZSTAN and THAILAND. I came super close with AFGHANISTAN, TAIWAN and TURKEY.
Films I'm most looking forward to seeing: I've seen the films from KAZAKHSTAN (B+), INDIA (B+), SOUTH KOREA (B) and TAIWAN (A-), part of the film from INDONESIA, and I have the DVDs here at home for the films from BANGLADESH, CHINA and HONG KONG. I'm dying to see the films from Afghanistan and China but my top choice is JAPAN's brilliant-looking "Confessions".
Last year's race: I did well, seeing 12 of last year's 17 Asian films. Three of them really deserved to be nominated, but none of them were.
1. KAZAKHSTAN- "Kelin" (A) An original, breathtaking, completely wordless work of art
2. SOUTH KOREA- "Mother" (A-) Fascinating slow-burn mystery/thriller...What a story! What an actress! What an ending!
3. JAPAN- "Nobody to Watch Over Me" (A-), an emotional thriller about a cop asked to protect the teenaged sister of an accused child killer ....Having lived in Japan for 4 years, I think it's a realistic look at the Japanese psyche.....
4. ISRAEL- "Ajami" (B+) Good multi-character drama in the vein of "Crash"
5. TAIWAN- "No Puedo Vivir Sin Ti" (B+) Strong character drama about a man (nearly homeless) who does his best to take care of his beloved young daughter.
6. TURKEY- "I Saw the Sun" (B) Good family drama about a Kurdish refugee family divided between Istanbul and Norway.
7. INDIA- "Harishchandrachi Factory" (B-) Slight comedy about the making of the first-ever film in India. Lots of energy and attention to detail, but slightly underwhelming.
8. CHINA- "Forever Enthralled" (C+) Beautifully filmed, slightly dull Chinese opera drama
9. THAILAND- "Best of Times" (C+) Entertaining but forgettable commercial romantic comedy about two couples- one old, one young.
10. HONG KONG- "Prince of Tears" (C-) Dull soap opera about an important topic- the anti-Communist witch hunts in 1950s Taiwan.
11. PHILIPPINES- "Grandpa is Dead" (D+) Somewhat entertaining but poorly made comedy about a large family mourning the family patriarch.
12. AUSTRALIA- "Samson & Delilah" (D) The opposite of "Kelin"...Nearly wordless and extremely boring drama about two aborigine teenagers who....well....do very little. How do it make the shortlist over "MOTHER"?
I couldn't track down the five remaining films, from Bangladesh, Indonesia, Iran, Sri Lanka and Vietnam, but "About Elly" should be released on DVD this year.