In April, GREECE became the first country to elect their "Best Picture" of the year to enter in the Oscar race for Best Foreign Language Film.
Over the years, 104 different countries have entered the race for an Oscar (92 have entered in the past ten years) and on this blog, we give them all equal treatment whether they sent a single film in the 1970s (like Cote d'Ivoire....they won....) or whether they've entered every year since the category was created in 1956 (like France, who has 12 wins but none since "Indochine" won twenty years ago).
Last year, I saw 34 of the record 71 submissions and I thought the five nominees were all "good". However, I was disappointed that more daring films like "The Patience Stone" (Afghanistan) and "Pieta" (Korea) didn't make the finals. My personal favorites were "Les Intouchables" (France) and "Jaque Mate" (Dominican Republic) though I will confess that both of these were "guilty pleasures" and not necessarily Oscar-worthy films.
This year, I'm dividing the world up into four regions-
I- Asia and the Pacific (26 countries),
II- The Americas + Sub-Saharan Africa (26 countries),
III- Western, Central and Northern Europe (26 countries)
IV- the Middle East (including North Africa) and Eastern Europe (including the Balkans)
I've nearly completed my research this year, but feel free to write and tell me what you think your country will send to the Oscars. Most countries won't select their films until September but I'm moving to Seoul this summer, so I've gotten an early start....There will definitely be films coming out this summer that I've surely missed.
Let's start with the region that Oscar completely ignored last year- Asia. 16 of these countries sent films last year to compete, and I think we'll see 17 this year, with New Zealand and Sri Lanka probably rejoining the competition, and Kyrgyzstan likely bowing out.
COUNTRY MOST LIKELY TO ENTER: Japan and Taiwan haven't missed a competition in more than thirty years.
LEAST LIKELY TO ENTER: Probably Fiji, which I think has nothing eligible.
MOST LIKELY TO GET AN OSCAR NOMINATION: It's a bit early to tell, but I'm betting on Hong Kong!
1. AFGHANISTAN- "Wajma: An Afghan Love Story" Despite continuing violence and instability, Afghanistan has become a semi-regular participant in the Foreign Oscar competition since their 2002 debut. Last year, an Afghan filmmaker received an Oscar nomination for the first time (for “Bukhashi Boys” in the Best Live-Action Short category) and they probably also deserved a Foreign Film nod for the riveting “The Patience Stone”, whose sexual themes would have merited the director a death sentence a decade ago. Despite (or perhaps due to) the country’s misogynistic recent history, the Afghan Academy usually submits stories highlighting the lives of women and girls. This year is no exception. The front-runner is “Wajma: An Afghan Love Story”, which won a Screenwriting Prize at Sundance for its story of a woman who is ostracized by family when she becomes pregnant during a secret engagement. The challenger is “A Man’s Desire for a Fifth Wife”, about the plight of Afghan women suffering under abusive marriages. Marina Golbahari, the 10-year old star of “Osama”, now a beautiful 23-year old woman, has a new movie but I don’t think it will be released in time.
2. AUSTRALIA- "The Rocket" Australia is likely to submit the exotic Lao-language “The Rocket” about a little boy who is believed to be cursed since he was born as a twin. When his extended family learns his secret (the other twin died at birth), he is forced out since they fear he will bring the family misfortune. The boy then is forced to try and find a new home on his own. “The Rocket” won three awards in Berlin (including a Crystal Bear) and three awards at Tribeca (including Best Narrative Feature), and it’s already set to have a 2013 U.S. release (through Kino Lorber). It's a shoo-in to represent the Aussies.
7. FIJI- Nothing eligible??? Tiny Fiji submitted just one film (the first-ever Fijian feature film) in 2005, but most of their involvement in international cinema is as a shooting location. They do have a local film in production called “Unlimited Tamasa” (in Hindi, the language of 40% of Fijians) which is scheduled to be completed in July but this slapstick comedy-cum-Bollywood-musical about a magic whitening cream is an unlikely Oscar candidate! Anyway, it probably won't premiere until the next Oscar cycle.
8. HONG KONG- "The Grandmaster" Hong Kong is nearly certain to choose Wong Kar-wai’s “The Grandmaster”, which seems to check all the Oscar boxes- it has been praised for deftly balancing artistic and commercial elements, it was made by a renowned auteur director (Wong Kar-wai) who has made his first box-office hit, it has big international stars (Zhang Ziyi and Tony Leung) and it opened the Berlin Film Festival where it was warmly received. This martial-arts historical drama focuses on Cantonese martial arts master and hero Ip Man (subject of a series of five HK films recently) in China in the 1930s after the first Sino-Japanese War. On top of all that, “The Grandmaster” will have the Weinstein Brothers behind it, since they’ve bought the US rights. I say “The Grandmaster” is in. Hong Kong typically likes to choose genre action films so I suppose “Cold War” (Opening Film in Busan and Best Picture Winner at the HK Film Awards), about a group of renegade cops, or “Drug War” (by four-time selectee Johnnie To, and Best Picture nominee at the Asian Film Awards), about a drug lord forced to work with police to avoid the death penalty, are both going to be considered…but they’ll find it hard to bring down Wong who has, quite unbelievably, only represented Hong Kong in the race once before. Rounding out the Top Five possibilities in a fairly weak year for Hong Kong cinema overall: melodrama “Bends” (Cannes 2013, Un Certain Regard) and Chow Yun-fat’s big-budget action movie “Monkey King”, which could benefit from an early Oscar qualifying release before its November premiere. Out of luck: “Journey to the West” may be the biggest hit in Hong Kong history, but it won’t be picked here. Prediction: The Grandmaster
9. INDIA- "The Lunchbox"
10. INDONESIA- "Sang Kiai" Indonesia is the third-largest country in the competition (behind India and China) and film output has climbed to about 80 films per year. As usual, the Indonesians don’t have any obvious Oscar nominees but they do have some well-received films so they’ll probably submit something as they have eight of the past ten years. The Indonesians tend to choose pretty historical dramas over arthouse film festival favorites. As I see it, they have five realistic possibilities: “Atambua 39 Degrees Celsius”,a drama about pro-Indonesia refugees escaping from the East Timorese conflict, “Habibie & Ainun”, a unexpected box-office success about the romance of former President Habibie and his wife, “Nine Summers, Ten Autumns”, an autobiographical rags-to-riches drama about a boy who rises above his station, “Sang Kiai”, a religiously tinged drama starring Indonesian grande dame Christine Hakim, about peaceful opposition to Japanese occupation during WWII, and “What They Don’t Talk About When They Talk About Love”, a festival favorite about blind adolescents. “Atambua” and “9 Summers” are by previously submitted directors (the director of “9 Summers” was selected last year”), “Atambua”, “Habibie”and “Sang Kiai” are the sort of historical dramas the Indonesian Academy traditionally fawns over, while “Love” has been seen most widely overseas (including Sundance and Rotterdam). “Sang Kiai” has starpower, while “Habibie”won Favorite Film at this year’s Film Festival Indonesia. It’s a very tight race but I predict the winner will be “Sang Kiai”, which combines patriotism with high production values. Runner-up: Riri Riza’s emotional “Atambua”. Dark horses include “Dream Obama” about a child going to the same school where President Obama studied many years before, “Mursala”, which overcame a lawsuit barring its release and which tells a cultural story about the nation's Batak minority, “Rectoverso”, an omnibus film that represented Indonesia at Cannes Film Market but has gotten middling reviews and “Something In the Way”, which though it competed in Berlin Panorama and Hong Kong, was mostly poorly received for its sexually explicit story of a frustrated taxi driver. Having said all that, Indonesia often has some of its strongest releases in August, so perhaps they’ll choose something I haven’t heard of yet.
11. JAPAN- "Shonen H" Japan always chooses a film out of left-field that nobody expects. They ignore their own Film Awards….except when they don’t (their 2008 and 2010 submissions- which incidentally both made the Oscar shortlist- dominated the Japanese Academy Awards, whereas their films in 2009, 2011 and 2012 netted a grand total of two minor Japanese Academy Award nominations and no wins). Sometimes they choose a commercial film that has no chance at Oscar (“Hula Girls”) and sometimes a film that no one seems to like at all (“Our Homeland”). And when they figure out what Oscar likes, they make sure never to send that kind of film again- they haven’t sent a single costume drama since getting nominated for “The Twilight Samurai” and haven’t sent a single gentle, comedy-drama since winning an Oscar for “Departures”. So, I’m about to give up on trying to predict the Japanese. Though I lived there five years, their Academy is bizarre. Three of their top contenders by three of Japan’s top directors won’t premiere until the fall, meaning they’ll be strong contenders next year (Hirokazu Koreeda’s Cannes drama “Like Father, Like Son”, Takashi Koizumi’s war movie “Eternal Zero” and Koki Mitani’s all-star period piece “Kiyosu Kaigi”) but they'll all be eligible next year. I see seven contenders (in alphabetical order): “Chorus of Angels”, a mystery-drama about a widowed music teacher (played by Japan’s Meryl Streep) who returns to her small Hokkaido town to meet with six ex-students, Shion Sono’s “Land of Hope”, the best-received of a slew of post-tsunami dramas, Ryoichi Kimizuka’s “Reunion”, a tender story about a coroner dealing with the bodies of tsunami victims in a makeshift morgue, Yasuo Furuhata’s “Shonen H”, a coming-of-age story about a young boy growing up against the outbreak of World War II, Masayuki Suo’s “Terminal Trust”, about a woman dealing with terminally ill people who choose to end their lives, “Under the Nagasaki Sky”, a drama about modern-day Japanese dealing with death and religion, and “Unforgiven”, starring Oscar-nominee Ken Watanabe in a samurai-era remake of Clint Eastwood’s Best Picture winner. Four of the seven (“Reunion”, “Shonen H”, “Trust” and “Unforgiven”) are by previously submitted directors and Sono is an up-and-coming horror director who may be rewarded for a foray into more serious territory. As I’ve said the Japanese Academy is notoriously bizarre, so I’ll thrown in a few second-tier dark horses, namely: “Beyond the Vigil”, about a man who wreaks havoc when he contacts his comatose wife’s lovers, “Millennial Rapture”, an overlong, overwrought film that probably wouldn’t be considered if it weren’t the final film made by the late Koji Wakamatsu, hilarious, super-fun comedy “Tug of War” about a misfit women’s team trying to save their factory jobs and “The Wind Rises”, the latest anime from Hayao Miyazaki. I wouldn’t hold much hope out for Takeshi Kitano’s “Outrage Beyond”….Though the film has been the most widely seen Japanese film at festivals this year, it’s a violent sequel and the Academy has never liked Kitano much. The same may go for Yoji Yamada’s “Tokyo Family”….Though Yamada is a beloved Japanese director and Oscar nominee, this remake of the classic “Tokyo Story” has gotten poisonous reviews overseas. Will the fact that “Unforgiven” is a remake of a US classic help or hurt it? Will 79-year old Furuhata’s age help him to be selected? (It didn’t last year when I predicted “Anata e”) I’m predicting that it will, and that Japan will want a more authentically Japanese story than “Unforgiven”. My prediction: “Shonen H”, with “Chorus of Angels” in second, “Reunion” in third, “Unforgiven” in a very close fourth, and “Nagasaki Sky” rounding out the Top Five. I’d love it if “Tug-of-War” makes it, but that’s asking a bit much.
12. KAZAKHSTAN- "Student" Kazakhstan has about 10 eligible films this year, and the front-runners are a pair of dramas that have quietly been building up a reputation for themselves on the international film festival circuit, namely “The Student” (Cannes Un Certain Regard 2012) and “Harmony Lessons” (Berlin 2013). “The Student” is a re-telling of Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” set in modern-day Almaty, while “Harmony Lessons” focuses on the increasingly global problem of high-school bullying and, more specifically, the victim's subsequent desire for revenge. The Kazakhs usually like to send flashier films to the Oscars but this year the bigger-budget movies like “Sword of Victory” (about a modern-day kid who helps a medieval army win a war with the help of a magical sword) or all-star romantic musical “When A Dream Comes True” look either too silly (“Sword”) or too lightweight (“Dream”). These two festival favorites will compete alongside “The Old Man and the Steppe”, which hasn’t been seen much outside of Kazakhstan but which is a companion piece to the remarkable “Kelin” which impressed Oscar voters enough to make it to the shortlist (and a probable 8th place) in 2009-2010. The filmmaking in “The Old Man” looks rather old-fashioned with its tale of an old man and his young apprentice lost in the wild steppes of Kazakhstan, based loosely on Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea”. My prediction: the tight three-way race finds “The Student” in first place, “The Old Man” in second, and “Harmony Lessons” in third, but all are roughly equally likely. Unlikely but possible: boxing drama “Zhol” and time-travel fantasy “Realtor”.
13. KOREA- "The Face Reader" Poor Korea has tried everything. Every year, they choose a brilliant film and every year they inexplicably fail to make the shortlist. They’ve tried auteurs and festival winners (“Pieta”), they’ve tried commercial successes (“Mother”), they’ve gone funny (“Welcome to Dongmakgol”), cerebral (“Secret Sunshine”), schmaltzy (“A Barefoot Dream”) and pretty (“King and the Clown”). They’ve emulated themes from every Best Foreign Film winner in the past ten years (three movies were about relationships during wartime like “The Counterfeiters”, two were mystery-thrillers like “Secret of their Eyes”, three explored ethics under Communism like “Lives of Others”) and NOTHING EVER WORKS. I am deeply greatly to the Korean Film Council for consistently bringing some of the best films in the world to my attention year after year. Keep trying! Now to this year’s race….Korea usually announces a shortlist of six films or so before electing their final nominee. This year’s I predict the six most likely films on the list will be “The Face Reader”, “Jiseul”, “Miracle in Cell No. 7”, “Moebius”, “My Paparotti” and “Nobody’s Daughter Hae-won”. Depending on the size of the list, you might also see a torture drama by a previously submitted director (“National Security”), a gay-themed festival favorite (“White Night”), a fantasy-melodrama about the friends of a girl killed in n accident (“Dear Dolphin”), a crime thriller (“New World”), a drama about the daughter of a prostitute (“Holly”) or a popular fantasy drama (“A Werewolf Boy”), but I think these are all destined to be also-rans. As for the six top contenders, Korea is one of those countries that really tries (unsuccessfully) to get into the head of the Academy voters. That means that the bizarre box-office hit “Miracle in Cell No. 7”, about a mentally challenged man falsely convicted of rape and murder and his daughter’s efforts to set him free, will be out first. If you think it sounds Oscary, you should know it’s actually a raucous comedy. Next to fall will be “Jiseul”, a low-budget B&W drama about the real-life massacre of innocent civilians in the 1950s who were suspected of being North Korean sympathizers. If selected, “Moebius” would be auteur Kim Ki-duk’s third try at an Oscar. He just cut 80 seconds (under extreme protest) to get the Korean censors to approve the film (they objected to scenes of graphic incest) for its September (Oscar qualifying?) release. But Oscar is unlikely to enjoy incest either, and the Korean Film Council is clearly wary of the film, plus Kim was selected last year. “My Paparotti”, sounds like it was made for Oscar- a music teacher whose opera career was cut short due to illness helps reform a violent gang member and grooms him to explore his God-given talent for music. Oscar would give it heaps of awards were it to star Sandra Bullock, but I just don’t think it’s a “big” enough film to succeed here. That leaves us with period piece “The Face Reader” and “Nobody’s Daughter Hae-won”, which competed in Berlin. In the end, I think the beautiful Chosun Dynasty-era sets and costumes and palace intrigue of “The Face Reader” will win out against the more subtle charms of the quiet festival drama about a woman involved in an affair with a married man. I’m feeling confident about “The Face Reader”.
14. KYRGYZSTAN- "Salam, New York" Kyrgyzstan's small film industry held its first National Film Awards in May, with “Princess Nasik”, a drama about a little girl with an active fantasy life beating out last year’s Oscar submission “Empty Home”. I would predict “Princess” for this year except that it appears it was released a few weeks before the deadline, sadly making it ineligible. Kyrgyzstan has been seeing a film renaissance in the past year, although most of this has been in short film production. The biggest film ever made in Kyrgyzstan is going to be “Kurmanjan Datka: Queen of the Mountains”, a biopic of a Kyrgyz noblewoman who helped unite Kyrgyz tribes to fight the Russian Empire in the 19th century. It has the support of the Ministry f Culture. However, with “Princess” released too early and with “Kurmanjan” coming out too late (early 2014...count on it representing Kyrgyzstan next year....), Kyrgyzstan doesn’t have much left to choose from. Out of the possible contenders, I think “Salam, New York”, a comedy about a Kyrgyz immigrant trying to make it big in New York City, has the edge over “Mystery of Inheritance”, about a rich man who forces his six children to solve a series of puzzles and riddles in order to collect their inheritance.
17. NEPAL- "Uma" Nepal hasn’t sent a movie since 2006 and they reportedly don’t have an official Oscar selection committee due to internal bureaucratic squabbles. That’s a shame because they had a wonderful movie to send last year (“Highway”) which was one of my favorite movies from last year’s DC International Film Festival. If the Nepalis can get their act together, I think they’ll send “Uma”, a thriller-cum-family-drama about a family torn apart by the Maoist insurgency and civil war in the 1990s, with different family members taking opposing sides. Director Tsering Rhitar Sherpa repped Nepal in the 2000 Oscar race, so he may know how to get the authorities to fill out the paperwork. Two of the Best Picture nominees from Nepal’s 2013 Film Awards are eligible- “Ke Ma Timro Sathi Banna Sakchhu” and “Rhythm”- but these both look like ordinary Bollywood musicals. “Rhythm” screened in Australia, so I suppose it has a better shot than “Ke Ma”. Prediction: “Uma”.
22. SRI LANKA- "Sri Siddhartha Gautama" Sri Lanka's most likely submission this year is clearly Chandran Rutnam’s lavish biography of Lord Buddha, “Sri Siddartha Gautama”, an expensive biopic of the founder of Buddhism. Although reviews have been mixed, the Sri Lankans generally seem proud of the film, and Rutnam was the director of Sri Lanka’s most recent submission in 2009. “Thanha Rathi Ranga”, about the journey of three friends to a region devastated by the recently ended civil war, has gotten somewhat better reviews, but doesn’t have the scale or hype of Buddha’s life story. The arthouse “August Drizzle”, about a female mortician, has gotten film festival play (the others have not), but reviews have been poor since it finally opened domestically in Spring 2013. Prediction: “Siddharta”
23. TAIWAN- "Ripples of Desire" Taiwan has a pretty modest record at the Oscars once you subtract three-time Oscar winner Ang Lee from the equation. The two most hotly anticipated Taiwanese films- Hou Hsien-hou’s martial arts epic “The Assassin” and Wei Te-sheng’s expensive baseball drama “Kano” won’t be released until next year’s race (when Taiwan will have a hard decision!) so there aren’t many strong possibilities. Taiwan is really unclear this year as they have a half-dozen middle-of-the-road titles with no standouts. My prediction is expensive period drama “Ripples of Desire” just because it’s “big” (their surprise shortlist spot in 2012 was for a big-budget period film) and I can’t figure out which of their other quiet dramas and dramedies they’d otherwise choose. Directed by Zero Chou, famous for her lesbian-themed films, “Ripples of Desire” is about two twin sisters living amidst 17th century pirates, leprosy and political intrigue. In second place, I’ll guess drama “Together” about a 17-year old boy from a dysfunctional family and his efforts to fix the problems around him. In third: “Forever Love”, a nostalgic romantic comedy set primarily in the 1960s about a boy visiting his 70-year grandfather who used to work in the Taiwan film industry. Finishing out the Top Five: “Soul”, a thriller (set to open the Taipei Film Festival) about a man who may be a victim of demonic possession, and “To My Dear Granny”, an auto-biographical film about a boy’s relationship with his grandmother. Less likely but still possible in a weak year: youth drama “Triangle Land”, baseball flick “Faithland”, omnibus film “Taipei Factory”, comedy “Will You Still Love Me?” (Tribeca) and kung-fu musical “The Rooftop”.
24. TAJIKISTAN- "Waiting for the Sea" Tajikistan's impoverished film industry hasn’t sent a film to the Oscars since 2005’s delightfully quirky “Sex & Philosophy”. This year, the Tajiks have been represented at several film festivals by “Telegram”, a drama about an actor who returns to his village for his mother’s funeral. At Tajikistan’s local Didor Film Festival, there was also one other Tajik feature- “The Wheel”. However, I’m going to predict a possible Tajik return with “Waiting for the Sea”, a surreal drama by Bakhtiar Khodoijnazarov who directed Tajikistan’s initial Oscar submission “Luna Papa” in 1999. “Waiting for the Sea” is about a fishing village that is relocated to the desert by a freak storm, and although Tajik input was minimal (The director is Tajik, but the film was co-produced by production companies from six other countries), Khodoijnazarov is arguably the country’s most prominent director so they may try sending it in. For an interesting interview on the current state of Tajikistan’s beleaguered film industry (with “Telegram”’s director), see here.
25. THAILAND- "King Naresuan Part 5" The Kingdom of Thailand has had the biggest-ever box-office hit in their national history (horror-comedy-fairytale “Pee Mak”, which has actually gotten surprisingly positive reviews) but they have been pretty weak when it comes to films that could potentially compete for an Oscar. The Thai Academy typically likes to choose films that positively showcase Thai culture. This year the national censors have been pretty uppity meaning that two long-awaited contenders have been banned (“Fatherland” about the Muslim-Buddhist conflict in Southern Thailand starring Ananda Everingham and “Shakespeare Must Die”, a drama about political intrigues amidst the Thai government, unofficially based on exiled PM Thaksin). Others that feature controversial subjects likely won’t be picked either (political history documentary “Paradoxocracy” by four-time Oscar director Pen-ek Ratanaruang, and indie darling “Karaoke Girl”, about prostitution). The biggest film of the year- the fifth and concluding chapter in the big-budget historical epic "King Naresuan" series-has no release date, while the biggest box-office hit is a horror-comedy about ghosts. Every contender seems somewhat unlikely: “Grean Fictions” is by a previously submitted director but it’s a lighthearted teen comedy; two eligible Best Picture nominees from this year’s Thai Oscars (the Suphannahongsa Awards) seem unlikely- “Yak: The Giant King”, a computer animated film, and “Countdown”, a NYC-set horror film whose trailer features a Jesus Christ figure/pot dealer breaking a Thai girl's finger- both seem limited by their genre. “Koo Kam” sounds perfect- it’s a WWII romance set during the Japanese occupation about a love triangle between a Thai man and woman, and an influential Japanese captain- but reviews were positively poisonous. So, with so many contenders disqualifying themselves, the Thai may have to look beyond the obvious choices- “Tamruad Peun Hode” (literally translated "Tough Gun Cops") is a social drama by the son of Thailand’s most acclaimed director, though there’s little info about it on line, “Tang Wong” is a youth-themed comedy that was warmly received in Berlin’s youth section, and “Together” was an also-ran at the Thai Oscars, but stars the daughter of His Majesty the King of Thailand. My prediction: “Naresuan 5” gets the Thai nod if they release it before September 30 (the Thai are reportedly choosing an auspicious date and may wait until the King's birthday in December), with the Top Four runner-ups in the following order: “Tamruad Peun Hode”, “Together”, “Koo Kam” and “Tang Wong”.
The most likely debut from Asia is "A Guerra da Beatriz" the first-ever feature film from tiny, impoverished TIMOR-LESTE. "Beatriz" is a retelling of Martin Guerre about a woman's loyalty to her lover during the Indonesian occupation that killed one-third of the tiny enclave's population. Also making their first-ever film is the tiny oil-rich Islamic kingdom of BRUNEI, which produced romantic comedy "Ada Apa Dengan Rina". While it's not an Oscary sort of film, one of the advantages of being a small country is that they can send it in anyway.
The MARSHALL ISLANDS (pop: 70,000) have also just produced their first-feature film, "The Sound of Crickets at Night", but unfortunately it was released right before the deadline leaving them out of the race.
Other unlikely possibities: BURMA is opening up to the world and could send human trafficking drama "Kayan Beauty", while NORTH KOREA is closing itself up to the world even more but still found time to make a co-production with their Southern neighbors- "The Other Side of the Mountain" is about the forbidden love between a North Korean nurse and a South Korean soldier during wartime. LAOS' "Red Scarf" got both a domestic release and a release in neighboring Thailand for its eerie ghost story set in the country's rural heartland.