Thursday, December 12, 2013


Year after year, my favorite Oscar films usually come from Asia, even though they seldom get nominated (none on the 9-film shortlist last year), though they do win occasionally ("Crouching Tiger" in 2001, "Departures" in 2009 and "A Separation" in 2012).

Most of these 19 films- ranging from Iran in the West to New Zealand in the Southeast- are out of luck....but they've got some very strong contenders in the mix and will definitely nab at least one or two spots on the list. Among the highlights are the first Pakistani film in contention in 50 years, two bloody horror movies from East Asia, and the return of Oscar winner of Asghar Farhadi.

19. THAILAND- "Countdown"
18. NEPAL- "Soongava"
17. INDIA- "The Good Road"
16. TAIWAN- "Soul"
15. INDONESIA- "Sang Kiai"

While I congratulate them for sending something different from the usual epics and arthouse flicks, Oscar was never likely to go for a foreign horror movie, so TAIWAN and THAILAND are out of luck. TAIWAN's "Soul" sounded fascinating. A man collapses at work and is sent to stay with his father in the rural mountains of Taiwan. As soon as his sister worries out loud that her brother is acting "strange", the body count starts to mount and the man's elderly father tries to cover up the crimes. The man replies in an otherworldly voice that "this body was I moved in". It's all very creepy and interesting, but ends up being a little too mysterious and whimsical for its own good. THAILAND's teen horror "Countdown" is loud, violent and obnoxious, and is shot like a music video. In the film, three Thai teens in New York are terrorized by a mysterious drug dealer named Jesus to repent for their secret sins on New Year's. It's all a lot of fun, but broken fingers, pulled-out teeth and over-the-top acting make this the "anti-Oscar".

INDIA and NEPAL are also out of their league this year. NEPAL returns to the Oscar race for the first time since 2006 with lesbian dance drama "Soongava: Dance of the Orchids", about a pair of lovers grappling with family and societal pressure to break up their relationship. It's said to be good but not more than that, and it's clearly a low-budget film. It's destined to be on the LGBT circuit. India was nearly guaranteed an Oscar nod for "The Lunchbox", but they selected Gujarati road movie "The Good Road" instead. The state of Gujarati has its own language and its own small film industry, and "Road" is said to be above and beyond the standard of regional Indian cinema. However, reviews have been tepid for this tale of three intersecting stories on the road in rural Gujarat, the most notable of which is a lost 9-year old girl who becomes trapped in a brothel.  

As for INDONESIA, "Sang Kiai" (aka "The Clerics") is a large-scale production highlighting peaceful Islamic resistance to the Japanese occupation in the 1940s, when they kicked out the Dutch and outdid the European colonialists in term of oppression and brutality. However, the film has barely been seen outside of Indonesia (not an Oscar power....), has zero buzz and I imagine the religious meaning and the political history will be too obscure for Hollywood voters. It looks pretty and well-made, but melodramatic.

14. PAKISTAN- "Zinda Bhaag"
13. AFGHANISTAN- "Wajma: An Afghan Love Story"
12. CHINA- "Back to 1942"
11. NEW ZEALAND- "White Lies"

All four of these countries have chosen interesting films, but they’ve mostly been absent at film festivals, and reviews simply aren’t strong enough to advance this year. The only major international award between them is a Best Screenplay Award at Sundance 2013 for the Afghan film.
I’m excited that AFGHANISTAN (which was nominated for an Oscar for Best Short Film last year) and PAKISTAN (which won Best Documentary Short in 2012) are back, and their films are near the top of my list to look for in 2013.PAKISTAN has returned for the first time since 1963 with “Zinda Bhaag” a comedy-drama about three enterprising Pakistanis who seek to illegally emigrate to the West via a shady broker. Things gradually get darker as their dreams seem less and less likely to come true. “Zinda Bhaag” is said to be one of the best films to come out of Pakistan recently, but I think it’s likely to miss the mark, and its Bollywood-style song and dance numbers are said to detract from the plot for Western viewers.AFGHANISTAN has chosen “Wajma: An Afghan Love Story” (not to be confused with “Wadjda” or “Walesa”….jeez….), the story of a modern young Afghan woman whose life is destroyed when she becomes pregnant by her boyfriend. As serious as this issue is in the West, it is a matter of life or death in Afghanistan where honor killings, forced marriage and overseas abortion are all part of the plot. Sundance award notwithstanding, it’s said to be a simple film and won’t be able to stand out of the crowd.
An unwanted pregnancy also plagues one of the three lead characters in the female-centered “White Lies”, a rare Maori-language film fromNEW ZEALAND, set during the colonial era. In the film, a Maori medicine woman whose practices have been banned by the British is asked to secretly help terminate the unwanted pregnancy of a wealthy white settler woman. It supposed to be a fascinating cultural study, but a bit more Masterpiece Theatre than Oscary…
Lastly in this category, we have CHINA’s “Back to 1942”, the polar opposite of these three quiet underdogs from Afghanistan, New Zealand and Pakistan. Said to cost $US35 million dollars and co-starring two Oscar-winning Hollywood actors (Adrian Brody + Tim Robbins) in small, supporting roles, this period drama about a famine that struck Central China in the middle of World War II is anything but quiet. Featuring Japanese raids, political intrigue and a huge cast of extras, this is the story of two families- one wealthy, one poor- who flee their village together to flee both poor harvests and the advancing Japanese. Though the cinematography is impressive, it’s also not a particularly good movie. Reviews have mostly been poor outside of Chinese-speaking territories by critics who note that it manages to be cold despite the emotional subject matter.


10. SOUTH KOREA- "Juvenile Offender"
9. BANGLADESH- "Television"
8. KAZAKHSTAN- "The Old Man"
7. CAMBODIA- "The Missing Picture"

I don't expect any of these four films to have a shot either, but they'll place higher than the previous nine. Cambodia's autobiographical documentary has a tiny chance with the elite committee, but odds are against them.

BANGLADESH's comedy "Television" is probably the country's strongest Oscar entry yet, and is the biggest Bangladeshi on the film festival circuit since "The Clay Bird" (whose director was tragically killed in 2011). "Television" closed the 2012 Busan Film Festival and got a Best Picture nomination at this year's Asia-Pacific Screen Awards (the first time a Bangladeshi film was nominated for anything). It's a satire about a rural village whose obnoxious village headman has forbidden T.V. on dubious religious grounds. It's a crowd-pleaser but unlikely to advance (Variety refers to its production values as "down-to-earth", and notes it runs out of gas in the end). Never-nominated SOUTH KOREA, on the other hand, has their weakest candidate in years. AMPAS has consistently ignored great Korean films like "Mother", "Spring Summer Fall Winter and Spring" and "King and the Clown", so I can't really see them choosing unheralded melodrama "Juvenile Offender", about a 15-year old juvenile delinquent who is reunited with the teenaged mother who abandoned him at birth. It's not a bad film, but it's not much more than a soap opera, and not up Korea's high standard Oscar submissions.
I had high hopes for Ermek Tursunov's "The Old Man" (aka "Shal") from KAZAKHSTAN. Tursunov directed the brilliant, beautiful wordless "Kelin" which shocked everyone by making the Final 9 in 2009/2010. It somehow failed to make the Top Five (how "Milk of Sorrow" beat it, I'll never understand) but it established Tursunov as a director to watch. "The Old Man", loosely based on Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea" is about an old Kazakh shepherd and a perilous journey through fog and snow (encountering scary wolves and bandits). "The Old Man" could technically surprise like "Kelin", but it looks like an old-fashioned Soviet film (perhaps thematically appropriate, but the chief charm of "Kelin" was that it looked like a painting). Lastly, there's CAMBODIA's stirring documentary "The Missing Picture"...It's an impressive autobiographical documentary of Cambodia's greatest modern director- Rithy Panh- who was imprisoned with his family in a Khmer Rouge concentration camp at the age of 13. Most of his family was murdered. As the title implies, films of that era mostly do not exist, so Panh uses (French) narration and clay figures to recreate his childhood. It's a very special film, though not necessarily an easy watch. Before the Feature Documentary shortlist came out, I thought "Picture" might have a chance with the elite committee, but "Picture" failed to make the Top Fifteen, so I'm pessimistic. Still, a film worth watching.
6. PHILIPPINES- "Transit"
5. HONG KONG- "The Grandmaster"
4. SINGAPORE- "Ilo Ilo"

These three dark horses will likely place very well in the 76-nation race, and they all have strong elements in their favor.

HONG KONG's "The Grandmaster" is a sort of arthouse "Crouching Tiger"-cum- all-star martial-arts biopic by Wong Kar-wai. Wong is beloved by some (though not all), and the film is a box-office success. More helpful in the Oscar race are the Weinstein Brothers, who are backing the film. It's the biography of Ip Man (not to be confused with the recent Donnie Yen "Ip Man" series of films, also from Hong Kong), the martial arts master who trained Bruce Lee and helped popularize kung fu worldwide. Wong and his distributors did something very interesting this year. AMPAS rules state that the version of the film must be the same version that is screened in local cinemas. Wong released a Hong Kong version, that re-edited the film so that it would appeal more to Western audiences and released that second version in Hong Kong theatres for an Oscar qualifying run. Though some say the longer, Chinese version is a better film, the shorter, sleeker "Western" version is said to be less complicated, less challenging and more appealing to audiences unfamiliar with history. Possibly a very smart move. Other than "Crouching Tiger" (and a nomination for China's "Hero" two years later), Oscar traditionally ignores martial arts film, even when they're very good (i.e. "Curse of the Golden Flower") so I think "Grandmaster" may just miss the cut.
THE PHILIPPINES "Transit" is possibly the best reviewed of the "real" Asian nominees (i.e. not counting "The Past"). "Transit" takes place in Israel, where thousands of Filipinos work as manual laborers, nannys and engineers. Recent laws ordered the deportations of many Israeli-born Filipino children, including those (like the boy and girl in the film) who speak Hebrew and have few ties to the Philippines. Word of mouth is very positive, but the Philippines has never been nominated yet, and this is still at its heart a small, independent film. Won't make the cut.

I give better odds to "Ilo Ilo" (Cannes 2013) from SINGAPORE. The film, set during the Asian financial crisis in the 1990s, centers on the relationship of an upper-middle-class Singapore family with their Filipina nanny....The spoiled 8-year old son initially bullies the new nanny....the working mother is jealous of the burdgeoning relationship between her son and his surrogate mother....the father is hiding the fact that he lost his job....It's been well-reviewed and reportedly stays on the right side of sentimental without being schmaltzy. This is key to winning over the large committee, which also tends to like foreign films with a lot of English dialogue (like the streets of Singapore, the film is multi-lingual, in a code-switching mixture of Hokkien, Mandarin, English and Tagalog). Australia or Singapore (probably not both) have a shot at grabbing a third Asian slot on the list.


3. AUSTRALIA- "The Rocket"
2. JAPAN- "The Great Passage"

1. IRAN- "The Past"

Okay....So we all know that French film "The Past", representing IRAN, is one of the favorites to win the award this year. Directed by Oscar winning director Asghar Farhadi, starring Oscar nominee Berenice Bejo, lauded by critics and celebrated by Internet "buzz", this psychological drama about a Persian man who goes to France to obtain a divorce from his wife (Bejo) is one of the front-runners. I agree. It's on the shortlist.

Can one-time Oscar superpower Japan or English-speaking Australia join Farhadi on the shortlist? Maybe. JAPAN's relatively obscure "The Great Passage" beat overwhelming favorite "Like Father, Like Son" to represent Japan. "Passage" is a comedy-drama about a shy, introverted researcher who is suddenly put in charge of the publication of a new dictionary. The man's love for the written word (and his awkwardness with speaking) and his dedication to the project help him to gain the confidence to woo a pretty neighbor. Look at the trailer and you'll immediately be reminded of Japan's last win- the wonderful "Departures". The Japanese do these sort of emotional, funny, light dramas very well (they would be nominated more often and they're a potential dark horse with the large committee.

AUSTRALIA's Sundance Film Festival favorite "The Rocket" is also strong. Oscar likes uplifting, sentimental stories, they like small children and they like films with a strong cultural slant (though not lately....). "The Rocket" is about one of a pair of twin boys (the other died at birth) who is believed to be cursed due to a local superstition regarding twins. His impoverished family is ordered relocated due to government construction of a dam (which is why this Lao-language film was banned in Laos!). This is very much a heartwarming story which has been a real audience pleaser....The little Lao boy will be competing directly with the little Singaporean boy in "Ilo Ilo" for one of the final slots on the list.
Now, the statistics:
Number of Foreign Languages Represented: Three films are mostly in Mandarin Chinese (China, Hong Kong and Taiwan) and oddly two are in French (Cambodia and Iran). There’s one film each in Bengali, Dari, Hokkien Chinese, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Nepali, Tagalog and Thai, plus the first-ever Oscar submissions ever in Gujarati (India), Lao (Australia), Maori (New Zealand) and Punjabi (Pakistan). The Filipino, Kazakhstani and Singaporean entries are quite multi-lingual.
Highest profile film: Asghar Farhadi’s France-based “The Past” certainly has the most buzz, though Wong Kar-wai’s all-star “The Grandmaster” has surely been seen by more people.
Number of Asia-Pacific countries participating this year: 19, including Australia, Iran and New Zealand
Number of countries that have participated in the past: 27.
Number of countries opting out: 8. Bhutan and Fiji have only ever sent films once each, and Malaysia, Mongolia, Sri Lanka and Tajikistan have each sent films only twice. That means the most notable absences are Oscar nominee VIETNAM (nominated in 1994), which launched an open call for submissions, but only received one (“Blood Letter”) which did not meet eligibility requirements, and KYRGYZSTAN, which usually sends some great films and which is about to release its most expensive epic film yet, the $1.5 million “Kurmandjan Datka- Queen of the Mountains”. So, hopefully we’ll see them both back next year.
Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: Hmmm…..Maybe 5?
Number of countries I predicted correctly: I did very well, selecting 9 out of 19- Afghanistan, Australia, Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, New Zealand and Singapore, and came close with Kazakhstan. Like everyone else, I was shocked by India’s choice , but even more so by Iran’s, which I assumed was too risqué for the Islamic government. 
Films I'm most looking forward to seeing: I’ve already seen the films from Cambodia (B+), China (C+), Taiwan (B) and Thailand (B), but given the chance to see one more, I’d probably choose Afghanistan’s intriguing “Wajma: An Afghan Love Story”.
Feature Debuts: 6 films are feature debuts (Australia, India, Nepal, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand)
Number of Comedies: Two-and-a-half….BANGLADESH’s village satire “Television”  and PAKISTAN’s serious immigration comedy “Zinda Bhaag”, plus romatic dramedy “The Great Passage” from JAPAN
Number of Animated Films, Documentaries or Horror Films: One documentary- CAMBODIA’s stirring documentary “The Missing Picture”, and two Asian horror films, THAILAND’s bizarre finger-snapping “Countdown” and TAIWAN’s more cerebral demonic “Soul”.
Oscar History:   Asghar Farhadi won the first-ever Oscar for Iran two years ago and he’s back again with “The Past”. He also likely came close to a shortlist spot for “About Elly”.
Five other directors have made it to this stage before- Mostofa Sarwar Farooki (Bangladesh; “Third Person Singular Number”), Feng Xiaogang (China, “The Banquet” for Hong Kong, “Aftershock” for China) Rithy Panh (Cambodia; “The Rice People”), Ermek Tursunov (Kazakhstan, “Kelin”) and Wong Kar-wai (Hong Kong, “In the Mood for Love”).
Number of Female Directors: Two women - Hannah Espia for the Philippines (“Transit), and Dana Rotberg, a Mexican director who resides in New Zealand (“White Lies”).  Surprisingly enough, the Pakistani film has a female co-director from archrival India, namely Meenu Gaur, who moved to Pakistan in 2010.

Oldest and Youngest Directors: Wong Kar-wai, arguably the most famous director in contention, is the oldest, although he’s only 57. Singapore’s Anthony Chen is only 29....Not sure how old Hannah Espia is.....

Familiar Faces:  The Asian countries are a star-studded lot. There couldn’t be more familiar faces to Oscar watchers than American Oscar winners Adrien Brody and Tim Robbins, who co-star in China’s “Back to 1942”. Brody is good as a journalist trying to bring news of the grave famine to the rest of the world. Robbins however sports a fake Italian accent in a performance worthy of a Raspberry Award. Another Oscar nominee- Berenice Bejo (“The Artist”)- and up-and-coming French star Tahar Rahim (“The Prophet”) co-star in the Iranian nominee, “The Past” (which of course is really a French film). “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” co-stars Zhang Ziyi of China and Chang Chen of Taiwan re-unite in Hong Kong’s “The Grandmaster” opposite local superstar Tony Leung (“Lust, Caution”).

Less well-known but still visible….Indonesian grande dame Christine Hakim co-stars in “Sang Kiai”…..In a great example of people-to-people diplomacy, one of India’s most acclaimed actors- Naseeruddin Shah-co-stars in the Pakistani submission “Zinda Bhaag”…..1960s martial arts star Yu Wang plays the lead in Taiwan’s “Soul”.

Controversies and Changes: The biggest controversy came out of India, when the favorite "The Lunchbox" was snubbed for the obscure "The Good Road". There was sniping back and forth between the Indian Film Academy, the director of "The Lunchbox", as well as snide comments (all true) from the film's foreign producers (including Bosnia's Danis Tanovic)....There was also disbelief but less noise at the snub of Hirokazu Koreeda's "Like Father, Like Son" in Japan.

Sour grapes marred Pakistan's first submission in 50 years as one of the rival shortlisted films ("Chambaili")  attacked "Zinda Bhaag" and the Pakistani selection committee for a number of ridiculous reasons, including claiming it was "corruption" that the decision was made before "Zinda Bhaag" had premiered in Pakistani cinemas (This is normal....Many countries choose a late release). Proving that nothing is simple in South Asia, there was also some griping in nearby Nepal that the winning director had recently naturalized to become a French citizen. A number of Iranians also complained about the selection of "The Past" instead of an "authentic" Iranian film. I agree somewhat, but those complaining were clearly more upset that the film was not Islamic enough rather than concerned with nationality. I like Farhadi so I'm happy the Iranian Academy and AMPAS decided to show some flexibility. I've always said AMPAS should normally defer to the country to decide a film's nationality.

Omissions: The blogosphere went crazy over the omission of pre-selection favorites "The Lunchbox" from India and "Like Father, Like Son" from Japan.
Also absent: Brillante Mendoza's "Thy Womb" (Philippines), "Modest Reception" (Iran) and "Harmony Lessons" (Kazakhstan).
Last year's race: The Asia-Pacific countries sent 18 films last year....I saw 12 including three that were really good- Korea's disturbing "Pieta" (A), Afghanistan's thought-provoking "The Patience Stone" (A-) and India's entertaining "Barfi" (B+). I also saw the films from Australia (C+..."Lore" was a big disappointment), Bangladesh ("Pleasure Boy Komola", B-), China ("Caught in the Web", B), Hong Kong ("Life Without Principle", C), Indonesia, ("The Dancer", C+), Malaysia ("Bunohan", C+), Singapore ("Already Famous", B+), Taiwan ("Touch of the Light", Winner of the DC International Film Festival, B) and Thailand ("Headshot", B+).
Next up: The candidates from Western Europe- Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey and the UK

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