Oscar has little taste for Asia, but many people are saying this could be their year! With IRAN's engrossing drama "A Separation" the deserved frontrunner for the award, films from CHINA, ISRAEL, JAPAN, LEBANON and TURKEY are also being talked about for potential nominations....In reality, I think only two of these have a good chance (see below) as does the dark horse from HONG KONG....But in a relatively weak year, it's anybody's game.
NO CHANCE IN HELL:
16. KAZAKHSTAN- "Returning to the A"
15. INDONESIA- "Under the Protection of the Ka'bah"
14. THAILAND- "Kon Khon"
13. SINGAPORE- "Tatsumi"
Better luck next year to four of my favorite countries...Once again, I applaud all of them for entering the competition (especially Singapore, which makes a lot of fun films and which is returning to the competition after a two-year absence) and getting their films seen in Hollywood.
INDONESIA and THAILAND have chosen visually rich period dramas that did not get particularly good reviews at home. In fact, both have been dismissed as little more than soap operas..."Under the Protection of the Ka'bah" is based on an acclaimed novel and set in 1920s Sumatra. With a budget of nearly 3 million US dollars (high by local standards), "Ka'bah" took nearly three years to make. It sounds impressive on paper but this religious melodrama about a poor boy who falls in love with a rich girl and dreams of a pilgrimage to Mecca (also a theme in the Indian submission) got mixed reviews even in Indonesia. THAILAND (where I used to live) has chosen a film set in the 1960s focusing on the rivalry of two traditional "khon" dance troupes. "Kon Khon" was a box-office flop in Thailand and got mixed reviews. Even the Ministry of Culture is under no illusions about the film's Oscar chances, saying that it was selected for its ability to promote Thai culture through cinema (which it does through lovely performances of Thai "khon" dance). For a good review of Thailand's submissions over the years see the following article from CNN. http://www.cnngo.com/bangkok/life/thailands-18-oscar-picks-its-all-about-culture-260964
KAZAKHSTAN 's film, a 3D action movie about a documentary film crew getting into trouble in modern-day Afghanistan, looks like a total mess. The trailer looks like a straight-to-video 80s action movie and I don't think it has played at a single international film festival. The Kazakhs usually send good movies to the competition and expect them to be in the running next year with expensive period epic "Myn Bala".
Unlike the other three, SINGAPORE's film has actually managed to get good reviews...However, it doesn't pass the mainstream test. A Japanese-language homage to an obscure Japanese comic book artist, this graphic animated film recreates scenes from Yoshihiro Tatsumi's life as well as some of his most disturbing stories. I look forward to seeing it (more so than the other three) but it's simply too weird and not what Oscar goes for....
ONLY SLIGHTLY MORE LIKELY
12. TAIWAN- "Seediq Bale: Warriors of the Rainbow"
11. VIETNAM- "The Prince and the Pagoda Boy"
10. PHILIPPINES- "The Woman in the Septic Tank"
9. KOREA- "The Front Line"
The Asian countries love to send in historical epics, which is what KOREA, TAIWAN and VIETNAM have done this year. Historical epics are always risky...On the one hand, they tend to have big budgets and impressive technical features...On the other, they often depend on knowing local history and, in Asia especially, often double as action movies with lots of blood and battlefield scenes.
TAIWAN's "Seediq Bale: Warriors of the Rainbow" is sure to alienate Oscar voters with its 4-hour, 25-minute running time and its rampant bloody beheadings. While it was a big hit in its native Taiwan, this film about aboriginal groups fighting against cultural annihilation during the early 20th century Japanese occupation of the island has not been warmly embraced by Western critics. The Hollywood Reporter complimented the period look, but said that non-stop fighting was "tedious" (and they screened an abridged 2 1/2 hour version!!)
VIETNAM's "Prince and the Pagoda Boy" (originally called "Thang Long Aspiration") is about a 9th century battle over the royal succession, filled with lovely costumes and lots of martial arts fighting. The Vietnamese are clearly trying to emulate recent Chinese period epics. There's very little information on the film online but the one Western review I saw was largely negative.
SOUTH KOREA has a better shot with "The Front Line", a box-office hit drama about the closing days of the Korean War when both North and South were trying to make last-minute territorial gains in anticipation of a permanent ceasefire. I just bought it on ebay and am now waiting for it to arrive. Oscar has never gone for Korean films before (not even the great Korean War drama "Taegukgi"), and I think this film will strike Oscar voters as little more than a well-done action movie...not an Oscar nominee.
THE PHILIPPINES haven't chosen an epic at all...They've chosen another comedy (their third in six years), this one lampooning independent filmmaking in the Philippines. "The Woman in the Septic Tank" is a tongue-in-cheek movie about Filipino producers trying to make an Oscar-winning picture. To do that, they enlist an A-list actress (Eugene Domingo, playing a parody of herself) to play an impoverished Filipino woman whose life is falling apart, which indeed is what most Filipino films on the Film Fest circuit tend to be about! The film was a big hit and is said to be very clever, but probably has too much silliness and too many in-jokes to make a dent here. Hopefully it will entertain the committee....I think it looks great!
FAIRLY DARK HORSES-
8. INDIA- "Abu, Son of Adam"
7. TURKEY- "Once Upon A Time in Anatolia"
6. JAPAN- "Postcard"
5. LEBANON- "Where Do We Go Now?"
All of these films will have their supporters, but lack a fundamental element in getting to the next round. From two of the Middle East's most cosmopolitan centers, LEBANON and TURKEY are often cited as among this year's favorites. Nuri Bilge Ceylan's "Once Upon A Time in Anatolia" won the Jury Prize at Cannes, and Ceylan's "Three Monkeys" was shortlisted three years ago. Nadine Labaki's "Where Do We Go Now" won the People's Choice Award in Toronto, joining a series of films that went on to win Best Foreign Film (Antonia's Line, Life is Beautiful, Crouching Tiger and Tsotsi) and even Best Picture (American Beauty, King's Speech, Slumdog Millionaire).
I think both films face an uphill battle....LEBANON's film is a comedy-drama based on the Lysistrata about Christian and Muslim women using sex to control their menfolk in a bitterly sectarian town. Toronto award notwithstanding, "Where" has actually gotten fairly unspectacular reviews, with some questioning whether it truly deserved the prize. It may be too lightweight although, as I keep saying, it's a weak year for foreign film. TURKEY's "Once Upon A Time in Anatolia" is wowing auteur critics, but this slow, plotless film about a team looking for a corpse in rural Turkey is said to be a hard slog to get through. The Hollywood Reporter jokes that it takes 90 minutes before the film has its first plot point. The film sounds just awful (I hated Ceylan's "Distant", although "3 Monkeys" was better) but it does have a small chance of being selected by the Elite Committee (which they probably did with "Three Monkeys"). A real dark horse.
The films from INDIA and JAPAN have been well-received at home, but have not won any major awards outside their home countries. Both are said to be good films but lack the gravitas to advance to the next round. INDIA's "Abu, Son of Adam" is about a poor, elderly Muslim couple from Kerala (Southwest India) who dream of making a pilgrimage to Mecca before they die. JAPAN's "Postcard" is a semi-autobiographical film set in post-World War II Japan, when a soldier returns to his hometown to deliver a letter to the wife of a late soldier. Both films have wonderful backstories...."Abu" is a low-budget film that managed to beat hundreds of big-budget Hindi-language blockbusters to win Best Picture at the National Film Awards and grab the country's Oscar nod..."Postcard" is directed by a 99-year old respected director (and WWII veteran) who has said this will be his final film. In the end, both films are said to be overly sentimental (is that good or bad with the large committee) and appeal to local tastes and history. I simply don't have faith they can make it to the next round.
4. HONG KONG- "A Simple Life"
3. ISRAEL- "Footnote"
2. CHINA- "Flowers of War"
I think that at least one of these films will be able to climb above the pack and join the Iranians on the shortlist...But which one? CHINA's 90 million dollar blockbuster "The Flowers of War" about the Rape of Nanjing from the perspective of an American man, looks great and is directed by Zhang Yimou. It's also one of only two Oscar submissions to get a Golden Globe nomination, which are a pretty good pre-cursor (although not all the Oscar submissions were eligible). Add to that its WWII plotline and its comforting amount (40%) of English dialogue, and the film looks like a good bet. Having said that, US reviews for "War" have been decidely mixed. I've predicted that Chinese "spectacle" would impress the Oscar committee before ("Curse of the Golden Flower", "Aftershock") but have been wrong every time. I still think "Flowers" has a good shot, but it could come in tenth place due to....
ISRAEL. The Israelis have done exceptionally well in recent years with an impressive three back-to-back nominations from 2008-2010. "Footnote", is the story of a bitter father-son rivalry in the world of Jewish Talmudic religious studies. It won Best Screenplay at Cannes, and has been picked up by Sony Pictures Classics. "Footnote" really does not sound like an exciting film, but reviews have been fairly strong overall. Howeverm, the film definitely has detractors who point out that the extremely esoteric subject matter will make the film a hard sell to many viewers. I think Israel may well be the "bubble" film fighting for 9th or 10th place.
No director from HONG KONG has ever been nominated in this category. Both of Hong Kong's Foreign Oscar nominations were films made by Mainland Chinese directors (Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige) working in Mainland China. Starring two of Hong Kong's most well-regarded actors, "A Simple Life" is the story of the lifelong relationship between a man (Andy Lau) and his aging "a-mah" (nanny; Deannie Yip). Despite winning Best Actress in Venice, this "small" film has not been talked about very much, but I think it has an excellent chance to appeal to the larger Oscar committee. Reviews have been overwhelmingly positive (although not universally excellent) and this is the sort of sentimental film that Oscar usually goes for. Good luck to Hong Kong.
1. IRAN- "Nader & Simin: A Separation"
For all the strategizing and campaigning, the best way to get nominated for an Oscar is still to make a great film that everybody recognizes is a great film. Asghar Farhadi has done that with "A Separation".
I won't gush about the film because so many people have said it all already. The film is a mystery, a thriller, a family drama, a love story gone wrong and, perhaps most importantly, a window into modern Iranian life. Just go and see "A Separation", and let's hope it gets nominated for Best Screenplay as well. I don't believe a film can ever be a lock for the win (maybe "Crouching Tiger", which charmed the US in a very weak year for foreign films), but if the large committee ignores it (and they've ignored great films before), the elite committee will be sure to save it. It's on the Shortlist.
On a sidenote, it will be interesting to see if the Iranians try to withdraw "A Separation" if Israel is nominated alongside it...I know they have rules in the Olympics about not competing directly against Israel. Anyway, it won't matter because AMPAS will surely refuse to withdraw the film (CHINA tried unsuccessfully to withdraw "Ju Dou" two decades ago) and "Separation" will likely win.
Now, the statistics:
Number of countries that have participated in the past: 31
Number of countries participating this year: 16
Number of countries disqualified: None that I'm aware of....
Number of countries opting out: 15, including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal and Palestine. The others have only ever submitted once or twice in Oscar history (Bhutan, Cambodia, Jordan, Malaysia, Mongolia, Sri Lanka and Tajikistan) or haven't submitted in over two decades (Kuwait and Pakistan).
The most surprising absentee from Asia is clearly BANGLADESH, which has sent films for six years in a row, and which had two major releases this year ("Runway" and "Guerilla") that could have represented the country with honor. Not sure why they skipped....I also expected that either IRAQ would send "Qarantina" or JORDAN would send "Fish Above Sea Level". I had also hoped that CAMBODIA ("Lost Loves") and PAKISTAN ("Bol") would return after long absences, but apparently there's nobody there interested in forming a committee and filling out the paperwork. Expect the Palestinians to be back in contention next year with "Habibie".
Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: Four strong films and three outside dark horses.
Number of Foreign Languages Represented: 15 in 16 films- Arabic, Cantonese, Farsi, Filipino, Hebrew, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Malayalam, Mandarin, Russian, Seediq, Thai, Turkish, Vietnamese. Interestingly, Japanese is the most-represented language (Japan, Singapore and half of Taiwan's film). China's film is roughly 45% in English.
Highest profile film: It's a toss-up between Zhang Yimou's "Flowers of War", starring Christian Bale (China) and "Nader & Simin: A Separation" (Iran), which has been receiving accolades worldwide, including the Golden Bear in Berlin.
Country with the Best Shot at a Nomination: Iran.
Longest Shot for a Nomination: Kazakhstan's 3D action movie, "Returning to the A"
Number of Comedies: Two. Lebanon and the Philippines
Number of Animated Films: One, from Singapore.
Number of Documentaries or Horror Films: None, although Taiwan's features a whole lot of realistic beheading.
Oscar History: Two Oscar nominees are in the mix- China's Zhang Yimou has been nominated for an Oscar three times ("Hero" and "Ju Dou", representing China and "Raise the Red Lantern", representing Hong Kong), plus four other times in which he was chosen to rep China.....And Israel's Joseph Cedar, who is representing Israel for the fourth time, including one nomination for "Beaufort".
Six other directors have represented their countries in the Oscar race before- Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Turkey, "Distant" and the shortlisted "Three Monkeys"), Asghar Farhadi (Iran, "About Elly"), Ann Hui (Hong Kong, "Ordinary Heroes", "Summer Snow"), Eric Khoo (Singapore, "My Magic, the disqualified "Be With Me") Nadine Labaki (Lebanon, "Caramel") and Wei Te-Sheng (Taiwan, "Cape No. 7)
Japan and Taiwan are the only countries to have won a Foreign Oscar award. China, Hong Kong, India, Iran, Kazakhstan and Vietnam have all been nominated (though the HK nominees were for Mainland China productions), and Turkey has made the 9-film shortlist once before. The other seven, including Korea and the Philippines which have sent films for decades, have had no luck so far.
Number of Female Directors: Two- Hong Kong's Ann Hui and Lebanon's Nadine Labaki.
Oldest and Youngest Directors: Japan's Kaneto Shindo will celebrate his 100th birthday in April, likely making him the oldest director EVER in this competition (Portugal's Manoel de Oliveira and his "Belle Toujours" were selected when he was a mere 98). He says "Postcard" will be his last film. There are no really young Asian directors in the mix....Youngest is South Korea's Jang Hun, who is 36.
Familiar Faces: Oscar-winning actor Christian Bale, who plays the lead role in China's "Flowers of War", is obviously the biggest name in the competition, with Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau ("A Simple Life") a distant second. "Flowers" co-stars Paul Schneider (Parks & Recreation), while "Simple Life" features cameos by Sammo Hung and Anthony Wong.
The cast of Japan's "Postcard" may not be well-known, but its five leading cast members have accumulated 33 Japanese Oscar nominations for acting.
Lior Ashkenazi (Israel), Sorapong Chatree (Thailand), Eugene Domingo (Philippines), Vivian Hsu (Taiwan), Nadine Labaki (Lebanon), Shin Ha-kyun (Korea) and Deannie Yip (Hong Kong) are fairly well-known in their respective countries.
Tough Choices: "The Outrage" from Thailand apparently was close to being chosen, but the Thais didn't want to choose a remake (of Oscar winner "Rashomon") over an original film.
Other films that appear to have just missed the cut included "Restoration" (Israel), "Dhobi Ghat: Mumbai Diaries" (India), "The Yellow Sea" (South Korea), which were all officially shortlisted. Also, "Let the Bullets Fly" (China), "1911" (Hong Kong) and "Norwegian Wood" (Japan).
Controversies and Changes: Some grumbled that "Flowers of War" was nearly 50% in English, making it a questionable pick for "Best Foreign Language Film", but most people seem satisfied since it is mostly in Chinese.
There potentially could have been a controversy from Iran..."Nader & Simin: A Separation" was originally announced by Iranian news agencies as the country's Oscar nominee, but these stories were deleted from the web a few days later and a "shortlist" of films was announced, leading some to believe that the controversial film by a director who has criticized the government was going to be replaced by a less politically sensitive choice. In the end, the Iranians selected "A Separation" anyway and the country will likely benefit by grabbing their first Oscar!
Number of countries I predicted correctly: 5- Indonesia, Iran, Lebanon, Singapore and Taiwan. I predicted the films from India, Israel, Korea, Turkey and Vietnam as alternates. China and Hong Kong didn't exactly play fair, since they chose films that opened in late 2011, but which had one-week qualifying runs specifically to compete for an Oscar....
Films I'm most looking forward to seeing: I've already seen the brilliant "Nader & Simin: A Separation" (Iran; A), but I'm dying to see "The Woman in the Septic Tank" (Philippines) based on the hilarious trailer.
Last year's race: I saw 13 of last year's 17 Asian nominees....Japan's brilliant "Confessions" was without a doubt the best, while Thailand's Cannes-winning mess "Uncle Boonmee" was the worst one I saw....I'll see a fourteenth- Turkey's "Bal"- soon.
NEXT UP: The 16 films from the Rest of the World, namely The Americas, Africa and Oceania.