Friday, December 21, 2012

FOREIGN FILM PREDICTIONS- Asian Submissions (17 Films)

So, I originally thought the shortlist would be announced next week but apparently it's tomorrow, forcing me to do a very quick Asian round-up (I'll fill it in later) before posting my final predictions early tomorrow morning.

I typically love the Asian films, and they are here in record numbers! I have been fortunate enough to visit sixteen of the seventeen countries from this group (sorry, Afghanistan) and watching always brings back good memories of the people and places I visited.

Unfortunately, I do not expect to see any of these seventeen films on the shortlist, though Korea and the Philippines are dark horses (for very different reasons which I'll go into below).

Welcome back to CAMBODIA (submitting for the first time since 1994)....if there was an Oscar for best backstory, this labor of love would be a contender. Financed with their life savings, husband and wife team Chhay Bora and Kauv Southeary directed (Bora), starred (Southeary) and wrote this film about the life of Southeary's mother who survived the Khmer Rouge genocide in the 70s. In doing so, they have put the cambodian film industry back on the map. I hope the presence of "Lost Loves" on the long list has brought the film some much needed publicity and attention. I can't wait to see it.


17. SINGAPORE- "Already Famous"16. VIETNAM- "Scent of Burning Grass"
15. MALAYSIA- "Bunohan: Return to Murder"
14. HONG KONG- "Life Without Principle"
13. THAILAND- "Headshot"
12. BANGLADESH- "Pleasure Boy Komola"

These six films have won few awards internationally and have made very little impact on the international film festival circuit. I've seen the films from BANGLADESH, HONG KONG, MALAYSIA and THAILAND and they all strike me as quite unlikely to appeal much to either the larger or small committee, as do the ones from SINGAPORE and VIETNAM. That said, they're all interesting films, and I'm glad these countries have entered the competition so that we can see the best of Southeast Asian, Bangladeshi + Hong Kong cinema.

I haven't seen the entries from SINGAPORE and VIETNAM, but a commercial comedy celebrating Singaporean pop culture and a jingoistic Communist war drama aren't exactly the sorts of movies that could be expected to advance. "Already Fsmous" is a romantic comedy about a small-town Malaysian Chinese girl who heads to Singapore to make it in the TV industry. It was a box-office hit at home and features a lot of local celebrities but it's hardly an Oscar nominee. "The Scent of Burning Grass" is about four young North Vietnamese students who join the anti-US resistance in 1971. They engage in an 81-day battle and only one survives...It won Best Film at the Golden Kite Awards but this sort of patriotic, government production is unlikely to resonate with US audiences.

MALAYSIA's "Bunohan" is only the second movie ever to represent Malaysia. Although the poster makes it look like an action/kickboxing movie, it's actually more of a soap opera of family intrigue about three brothers living around the Thai-Malaysian border. It's an interesting story and it got a surprisingly rave review from Variety (comparing it to "The Godfather", Shakespeare and The Bible no less!) but it's also a little bit confusing and uncomfortably straddles the line between action and arthouse. From across the border in THAILAND comes another action flick- Pen-ek Ratanaruang's "Headshot" (available on Netflix). I'm a big Pen-ek fan (although I didn't like his most acclaimed work, "Last Life in the Universe" at all) and "Headshot", the story of a hit man whose vision turns upside down after being shot, is certainly an entertaining film but it's not Oscar-calibre (It didn't even win Best Picture at the Thai Oscars this year). It's a solid 8/10 thriller but not a threat here.

I was surprised how much I liked BANGLADESH's "Pleasure Boy Komola", which you can watch with English subtitles on Youtube. During the monsoon season, a rich landowner commissions a troupe of musicians to perform for him at his estate. The star of the impoverished troupe is the 12-year old son of the troupe's leader, who performs as a dancer in drag attire as part of a traditional art form. The landowner lusts after the young boy. It's the sort of film that actually might have had a chance at a nomination in the 1960s or 1970s, with lots of catchy music and local color but production values are modest (the dubs are sometimes off) and the acting a bit melodramatic. I recommend seeing it, but it's not a contender. HONG KONG's "Life Without Principle" is the fourth action movie by Johnnie To to represent Hong Kong, and none of the entries have yet come close. "Principle"- three interlocking stories of people desperate for money against the background of the Asian financial crisis- has gotten mixed reviews. I found it entertaining enough, but it's more or less forgettable.

11. JAPAN- "Our Homeland:"
10. TAIWAN- "Touch of the Light"
9. CAMBODIA- "Lost Loves"
8. INDONESIA- "The Dancer"
7. INDIA- "Barfi!"

6. AFGHANISTAN- "The Patience Stone"
5. KAZAKHSTAN- "Myn Bala"
4. KYRGYZSTAN- "Empty Home"
3. CHINA- "Caught in the Web"

2. PHILIPPINES- "Bwakaw"
1. SOUTH KOREA- "Pieta"
The PHILIPPINES and SOUTH KOREA have entered the Oscar competition since 1957 and 1962 respectively, with absolutely no luck. I've honestly never seen a Filipino submission that was deserving (although i liked Maximo Oliveros and Dekada '70) but for Korea, this is really a shame. The Koreans send outstanding films virtually every year but the increasing global reach of Korean culture still lacks an Oscar nod.

This year, they're both in with a chance.

In all likelihood, the large committee won't like Kim Ki-duk's violent "Pieta" which has gotten Kim's best reviews in years (he was in a bit of a slump) and which won the Golden Lion in Venice. It's about a loan shark/enforcer (complete with scenes of him torturing those who don't pay) who meets a woman who claims to be his long-lost mother. "pieta" stands a strong chance it being "saved" by the elite committee but with Romania, Spain and possibly even Austria and Canada also in need of saving, I fear they not make the cut.

The Philippines' dramedy "Bwakaw" is unlikely to be saved by the auteur committee. It's a simple story of an cantankerous elderly man who discovered rather late in life that he was gay. Despite a rather simplistic plotline (the old man finds friendship with a pet dog), the film has won the hearts and minds of viewers, including at the stuffy New York Film Festival. Nobody seems to have a negative word to say about it, although it really does seem to be just a bit too formulaic and simple to make it here. Ultimately, I think "Bwakaw" will rank high in the Large Committee's rankings, but that it won't make the Top Six to qualify for the next round.
Now, the statistics:

Number of countries that have participated in the past: 24

Number of countries participating this year: 17.

Number of countries opting out: Well, technically seven although two countries (BHUTAN and FIJI) have only ever sent films once and one (PAKISTAN) hasn;t entered in nearly fifty years so they aren't really missed.....

The most notable absence is NEPAL who had a notable contender in "Highway" which played in Berlin. Although it got both positive and negative reviews at home, it is definitely the most high-profile Nepali film (co-produced by Danny Glover) internationally in years. Unfortunately, sources indicate that political squabbling within the National Film Board has meant that the country has no official Oscar committee. What a shame.


Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: Not many....Two strong films, with three dark horses.

Number of Foreign Languages Represented: Two are majority in Mandarin (China +Taiwan) plus one film each in Bengali, Cantonese, Hindi, Indonesian, Japanese, Kazakh, Khmer, Korean, Persian, Tagalog, Thai and Vietnamese, plus the Kelantese dialect of Malay ("Bunohan").

Also, the Kyrgyz film is in a mix of Kyrgyz, Russian and French, while the Singaporean nominee is in Mandarin, Hokkien, Malay and English.

Highest profile film: Probably Venice Golden Lion winner "Pieta" from South Korea.

Country with the Best Shot at a Nomination: I'd say South Korea edges out the Philippines, but just barely.

Longest Shot for a Nomination: Singapore's commercial comedy "Already Famous" which relies a lot on local humor.

Number of Comedies: Three- India, the Philippines and Singapore

Number of Animated Films, Documentaries and Horror Films: None

Oscar History: CHINA's Chen Kaige is the only Oscar nominee in the competition this year from Asia. He represented Hong Kong in 1993, winning an Oscar nomination and later represented China in 2005 and 2009 for "The Promise" and "Forever Enthralled" respectively.

HONG KONG's Johnnie To contended for an Oscar twice in 2003 and 2007 ("Fulltime Killer" & "Exiled") and THAILAND's Pen-ek Ratanaruang competed in 2000, 2002 and 2003.

Humayun Ahmed ("Shyamol Chhaya", 2005), Nurbek Egen ("The Wedding Chest", 2006), Kim Ki-duk ("Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...Spring", 2003), Atiq Rahimi ("Earth & Ashes", 2004) and Akan Satayev ("Strayed", 2010) have all been in the Foreign Oscar competition once before.

JAPAN is the only country that has won multiple Foreign Film Oscars (4 times), though they have only won once since 1956. TAIWAN won once in 2001. INDIA has been nominated three times, CHINA and HONG KONG have been nominated twice each (all by Mainland China directors) and KAZAKHSTAN and VIETNAM have been nominated once. The other ten countries are still waitiing for their first Oscar nod, although

Number of Female Directors: Two. Yang Yong-hi of Japan and Michelle Chong of Singapore are the first-ever female directors to represent their countries here.

Oldest and Youngest Directors: The most senior director was 64-year old Humayun Ahmed of Bangladesh, a renowned author who passed away shortly before "Pleasure Boy Komola" was released. The youngest is 32-year old Rong-ji Chang of Taiwan but I'll admit I have no idea how old the Vietnamese director is.

Familiar Faces: Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani is probably the most familiar face. She co-starred opposite Russell Crowe and Leonardo diCaprio in "Body of Lies" without a headscarf and now lives in exile in France.

Ranbir Kapoor, one of India's most famous comedic actors (and former "Sexiest Man Alive", India edition) is a close second.

"Life Without Principle" from Hong Kong features a recognizable cast to those familiar with Cantonese cinema, including Ching-wan Lau, Terence Yin and pop star Denise Ho.

Former Miss World Priyanka Chopra (India), actor Xueqi Wang (China), TV star and presenter Michelle Chong (Singapore) and veteran actor Eddie Garcia (Philippines) are familiar faces in their home countries but won't be known to Western audiences.

Tough Choices:

Controversies and Changes: The Bangladeshi Film Academy apparently split into two factions a year or two ago, each centered on the two political parties that bicker and fight and prevent anything from getting done....This year, both factions announced that they would be sending films. The government-affiliated faction sent one first- "Pleasure Boy Komola"- and that was the entry that stood (it's unclear if the second faction even bothered or if they just said they would in order to annoy the other one).

Number of countries I predicted correctly: Only three....CAMBODIA, KAZAKHSTAN and KYRGYZSTAN which were all pretty easy. Most of the countries chose films that were released rather late in the year so I hadn't heard of them when I made my predictions in early summer (i.e. "Bwakaw" and "Pieta").

Films I'm most looking forward to seeing: I've seen the nominees from Bangladesh, Hong Kong, Thailand and Malaysia.....Out of the rest, I'm most interested in seeing CAMBODIA's "Lost Loves" and KYRGYZSTAN's "Empty Home", which sound great but which I foresee being difficult to find.

Last year's race: To my shock and surprise, I only saw two of last year's 12 films....the interesting anime "Tatsumi" from Singapore (B+) and the well-meaning but slight "Abu, Son of Adam" from India (C+). I have the DVDs of the entries from China, Hong Kong, Korea and Taiwan at home and will watch early in the New Year. Thanks to the East Asian countries (except Japan!) for regularly releasing their films on DVD with English subtitles!

1 comment:

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