Thursday, December 4, 2014

FOREIGN OSCAR PREDICTIONS- A look at the 21 Nominees from Asia & the Pacific

Here’s my favorite batch of submissions- the films from Asia and the Pacific. Last year, Asian countries got an impressive three spots on the 9-film list (Cambodia, Hong Kong and Palestine). I doubt they’ll maintain that number this year, but here’s hoping they get at least two. Israel + Turkey think they are Western European countries (even though they're not) so they'll be in the next round of predictions.

One surprise this year is the number of countries who selected foreign-born directors. China’s director is from France, Taiwan’s director is from Burma and Iraq’s director is from Iran. And though they have long worked in their adopted countries, Hong Kong and Australia’s directors are from China and the Netherlands respectively and Japan’s director is a Korean citizen born in Japan. Another theme from the Asian films this year is the presence of strong female lead characters. I find it interesting that the films from South and Central Asia have all chosen films dominated by strong female leads (Bangladesh, India, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal, Pakistan).


21. SINGAPORE- “Sayang Disayang”
20. BANGLADESH- “Glow of the Firefly”

I think it’s great that small, lesser developed film industries like BANGLADESH and SINGAPORE participate in the Oscar race. In the coming year, I’ll do my best to track down and watch these two intriguing titles. Having said that, Bengali-language melodrama “Glow of the Firefly” and low-budget Malay-language musical “Sayang Disayang” are clearly out of their league here. The spare 70-minute “Sayang Disayang” is about a grumpy old Malay-Singaporean man who is assigned a live-in Indonesian maid/caretaker who enjoys singing around the house while she cooks. Shot on a minuscule indie budget ($US315K) by a brand-new director, it looks like a visually interesting student film. And don’t expect the Malay-language melodies to resonate with the Oscar voters either. Foreign-language musicals are a hard sell. “Glow of the Firefly” (aka Jonakir Alo) is about a kind-hearted woman torn between two suitors and her dream of adopting a child. Bangladeshi films rarely have the production values to compete at the international level and “Firefly” is no exception. It’s also the only title on the list that has zero voters at the IMDB AND it will be the last of the 83 titles to screen for the committee. Not promising signs. Better luck next year.


19. THAILAND- “The Teacher’s Diary”
18. INDONESIA- “Soekarno”
17. NEPAL- “Jhola”
16. HONG KONG- “The Golden Era”

One step up the ladder are a glossy historical drama, a formulaic box-office hit rom-com, a creaky biopic and a look at the traditional Hindu custom of sati (bride burning). All of them are unlikely to appeal to the Oscar committee for several reasons. INDONESIA’s “Soekarno” is an expensive biopic of the country’s controversial first President, but the history lesson will be too obscure for American voters, Indonesian historical dramas tend to be somewhat didactic and dull and reviews have been mixed. NEPAL’s “Jhola” has a morbidly fascinating topic (a woman escapes sati, the ancient Hindu tradition of forcing widows to commit suicide by jumping on their husbands’ funeral pyre) and the filmmaking looks quite exotic and pretty. It was a major word-of-mouth success at home in Nepal, but I think the melodramatic acting will fail to appeal. The only one of these films that anyone has really heard of is Ann Hui’s three-hour biopic “The Golden Era” from HONG KONG, about an obscure Chinese female poet who died at age 35. While it’s supposed to be competently made and well-acted, it’s also supposed to be overlong and fairly boring. Poet Xiao Hong may have been very talented, but poetry is hard to translate and this film looks like a non-starter. Last in the group is THAILAND’s “The Teacher’s Diary”, a “concept” romantic dramedy about a man who falls in love with a woman he has never met by reading her diary. This was a popular hit in Thailand this year, but even the head of Thailand’s Film Academy admitted that he was perplexed about selecting this for the Oscars. Imagine the USA choosing “You’ve Got Mail” (a pleasant-enough romantic comedy) to represent the country at a prestigious international film festival and you’ve got an idea of what the Thai have done. These four have no chance.

15. TAIWAN- “Ice Poison”
14. IRAN- “Today”
13. JAPAN- “The Light Shines Only There”
12. PAKISTAN- “Dukhtar”
11. INDIA- “Liar’s Dice”

Interestingly enough, rivals India and Pakistan have both chosen similarly themed female-helmed, female-driven road movies. From PAKISTAN comes “Dukhtar” (Daughter). It’s about a wife who flees her village with her young daughter when she learns her husband plans to marry the girl off to a brutish elderly clan leader in order to end a blood feud between their two families. From INDIA, comes “Liar’s Dice” about a wife who leaves her village with her young daughter to SEARCH for her husband who has gone missing after moving to the big city to find work. “Dukhtar” has booked a number of festival screenings (Toronto, Busan) while “Liar’s Dice” has been more quiet. Having seen “Dukhtar”, it’s a good movie but it’s clearly the work of a director still learning her craft. There are a few unrealistic moments and a few too many South Asian film clichés. I haven’t seen “Liar’s Dice” yet but I get the feeling it may suffer from some of the same issues.

IRAN’s “Today” is supposed to be quite good, but reviewers note that it is too subtle to appeal to a wide audience, and sometimes too culturally “different” to be comprehensible to a Western audience. The story focuses on an Iranian taxi driver who becomes involved in the life of a pregnant single woman when she enters his cab while going into labor.

TAIWAN’s gritty “Ice Poison”, set in Burma, is about an ethnic Chinese couple’s efforts to make ends meet in a crime-ridden border area rife with drug trafficking, human trafficking, prostitution and violence. It has gotten some excellent reviews, but reaction has been divided with some clearly hating the slow, cinema verité style.

Lastly, JAPAN has once again made a bizarre selection choice with “The Light Shines Only There”, a grim, obscure film about an unemployed, alcoholic slacker who falls for the sister of a friend. Reviewers generally say the film is depressing and filled with drinking binges and meaningless sex. Not the sort of film that’s generally honored or appreciated here, so not sure why Japan sent it in. Why not “World of Kanako” or “Little House”?


10. NEW ZEALAND- “The Dead Lands”
9. IRAQ- “Mardan”
8. AFGHANISTAN- “A Few Cubic Meters of Love”
7. PALESTINE- “Eyes of a Thief”
In the middle of the pack are the submissions from three of Asia’s most troubled countries, plus a rare Maori epic from New Zealand.
AFGHANISTAN’s “A Few Cubic Meters of Love” (which I saw in Busan) is a really interesting love story about the relationship between the teenaged daughter of an Afghan refugee in Iran (formerly a doctor in Afghanistan, but now an exploited laborer) and a handsome Iranian boy working on the construction site where her father works. Made in Iran by a young, new director (himself an Afghan refugee), it’s not a perfect film but it certainly shows potential and packs an emotional wallop. It will place well.
NEW ZEALAND arranged an early qualifying release for Maori warrior epic “The Dead Lands” (Toronto), a violent historical action movie about a young man trying to avenge the murder of most of his clan. “Dead Lands” will be competing directly against another period warrior epic- “Kurmandjan Datka” (Kyrgyzstan) and I’d give the Kyrgyz film the edge. “Dead Lands” looks great but it just seems like too much of a violent action movie to score enough votes here. Of course, some will point to the similarities with shortlisted “Seediq Bale”, but I just think “Dead Lands” is too much of a genre pic to make it to the next round.
The obscure slow-burn mystery “Mardan” from IRAQ's Kurdistan region was one of the last films to be added to the Oscar list. It’s the directorial debut of Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi’s brother Batin and it’s said to be a brooding drama in the style of Nuri Bilge Ceylan about a hardened police detective investigating a murder in the Kurdish countryside. Though the film has gotten good reviews, it seems to be too cerebral. The reviews I’ve read say it relies heavily on symbolism that may not translate to the mainstream.
PALESTINE’s Najwa Najjar became the second woman to represent Palestine with “Eyes of a Thief” which opened in Ramallah at the last minute to qualify. It’s the story of a man freed from an Israeli prison after ten years who begins a desperate search for the daughter he left behind (interestingly Iraq sent a similar film, “Jani Gal”, in 2008). AMPAS has shown a great deal of interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum (nominating several Israeli and Palestinian films dealing with the conflict) and “Thief” could ride that wave to victory. However, the reviews I’ve read say it’s a solid film but there’s nothing to indicate its good enough to advance further than this.


6. CHINA- “The Nightingale”
5. AUSTRALIA- “Charlie’s Country”
4. PHILIPPINES- “Norte, the End of History”
3. LEBANON- “Ghadi”

All four of these films are in with a chance, though ultimately they’ll probably fail to finish higher than 15th or 20th in the race. Loads of people are talking about “Norte, the End of History” (Cannes 2013)- a drama about a murderer who goes free and an innocent man sent to jail- from the PHILIPPINES as a potential nominee. However, I’m not convinced. First of all, it’s four hours long. Despite director Lav Diaz’s comments that a movie doesn’t have to be two hours (his latest film is eight hours) many Academy members will beg to differ (me too!). Going to the movies is not like watching a season of “The Killing”. Films and mini-series are very different animals. “Norte” does fulfill some of the criteria we’ve come to expect from the Elite Committee (it’s edgy, arty and very much in need of a save) so it definitely has a chance of being nominated by the smaller group, but forget the large committee. It appears to be on iTunes so maybe I’ll pretend it’s a TV show.
CHINA raised eyebrows when they chose the obscure “Nightingale”, a Chinese-language film directed by a Frenchman loosely remaking his own film “Le papillon”. It’s about a rural grandfather who ends up taking a trip with his spoiled, tech-obsessed granddaughter. While many were annoyed that China didn’t select one of their better-known festival efforts, the more I think about this choice, the smarter it seems to be. China’s Oscar submissions are usually praised in the West for their technical achievements but are criticized for being cold and/or lacking a certain soul. Having a European director at the helm with a Euro/French style (Oscar loves French films) and an intergenerational plotline may be the just the sort of film that Oscar likes. But reviews have been positive but enuthusiastic.
“Charlie’s Country” is the third Aboriginal film to compete at the Oscars, after “Ten Canoes” and the (terrible) shortlisted “Samson & Delilah”. Films like “Charlie” that have a lot of supporting dialogue in English make them easier to watch and might give AUSTRALIA an edge. This story of an Aboriginal man who unsuccessfully decides to “drop out” of modern society and live in the bush the way his ancestors did won Best Actor at Cannes. It’s supposed to be a good film, though it’s usually mentioned more for its acting than anything else.
LEBANON is trying for the “Amelie” slot (again) with feel-good comedy “Ghadi”, about a mentally handicapped boy who may or may not be an angel, and who breathes new life into his hectic Lebanese community. Winner of a huge number of Audience Awards worldwide, this is a definite crowd pleaser though it’s probably too light to make the next round. If Oscar didn’t go for Toronto winner “Where Do We Go Now?” (one of my favorites), they likely won’t go for the lower-profile “Ghadi” either, but here’s hoping for a US release!

2. SOUTH KOREA- “Sea Fog”
1. KYRGYZSTAN- “Kurmandjan Datka: Queen of the Mountains”

Korea and Kyrgyzstan are the most likely Asian candidates to make the Final Nine shortlist this year. Having said that, I’d be somewhat surprised if more than one made the final list.

Tense maritime thriller KOREA's “Sea Fog” (Toronto) has the stronger buzz and it’s been quite well-received by both domestic and foreign critics. However, I still predict they will fail to make it since AMPAS consistently passes over incredibly good Korean films year after year after year. (Maybe it’s the truly hideous Korean language? Could that be it?) “Sea Fog”, about a ragtag ship's crew helping to smuggle illegal Chinese immigrants to South Korea, is the sort of film that may find some success with the large committee- it's mainstream enough to be widely accessible and get lots of high votes, but the filmmaking is of a high-enough quality to be appeal to the arty people. Some fault characters without depth but that's almost every movie that takes place on a boat, right?

And then there was one....That only leaves this year's dark horse Asian front-runner- “Kurmandjan Datka: Queen of the Mountains”- the expensive biopic from KYRGYZSTAN which is hoping for a “Mongol”/”Seediq Bale” slot. Though they’ve never been nominated, Kyrgyzstan consistently sends excellent films to the competition (try to see "Wedding Chest" or "Tengri"). "Queen" tells the inspiring true story of a 19th century woman who bucked local traditions and defied the odds to become a military leader and strategist who united Kyrgyz tribes against Russian invasions. “Kurmandjan Datka” will suffer a little because voters don’t know (or care) about Kyrgyz history but perhaps the unexpected “warrior queen” aspect will help them overcome that. The film has something for everyone. It's beautifully shot (which will please members of AMPAS from the technical branches...these are guys that probably doomed "4 Months, 3 Weeks" a few years ago), culturally exotic with an even mix of action and artistic flourishes. A good dark horse. Good luck to the Queen.

Now, the statistics:

Number of Foreign Languages Represented: A diverse crowd...The 21 films are in 17 primary languages. There are two films apiece in Arabic (Lebanon, Palestine), Mandarin (China, Hong Kong) and Persian (Afghanistan, Iran) and one film each in Bengali, Hindi, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Kurdish, Kyrgyz, Malay, Maori, Nepali, Tagalog, Thai, Urdu, Yolngu and the Yunnanese dialect of Chinese.

Highest profile film: The Asian countries picked a mostly obscure set of films. The most buzz seems to be whirring around 4-hour drama “Norte, the End of History”, representing the Philippines, with Korea’s “Haemoo” (Sea Fog) a close second.

Number of Asia-Pacific countries participating this year: 21

Number of debuts: None

Number of countries that have participated in the past: 33

Number of countries opting out: 12. The shocking absence was Kazakhstan, easily the most important country missing this year (2 shortlist spots in the past 7 years) with a real potential Oscar contender - “Harmony Lessons” (which opened domestically in Kazakhstan in December 2013). Kazakhstan is always one of the last countries to announce…Did they miss the deadline? Did they forget? They were prominently featured in Busan 2013 so it’s so sad to have their national cinema absent this year.

The other key absentees were Cambodia, which got a surprise Oscar nomination last year for “The Missing Picture” and Vietnam, which claimed they did not receive an invitation from AMPAS this year. While Vietnam did in fact have some successful films this year, it’s unclear whether Cambodia had anything eligible.
Nobody should be surprised by the absence of a few countries that have only ever submitted films once (Bhutan, Fiji, Jordan and Saudi Arabia) or twice (Kuwait, Malaysia, Mongolia, Sri Lanka and Tajikistan), although I did expect Mongolia might return with gentle drama “Remote Control” (Busan) or that Malaysia might do the right thing and nominate box-office hit “The Journey” despite their racist policy of promoting only Malay-language fare.

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: Not many. Three?

Number of countries I predicted correctly: I didn’t do so well. I only got four exactly right- Australia, Hong Kong, Kyrgyzstan and Lebanon, which were all fairly easy. But I think I also deserve credit for New Zealand and Palestine which I would have predicted but thought wouldn’t get released in time. Lots of countries really threw me for a loop, especially China (whose nationalist authorities chose a film by a French director) and Thailand (which chose a routine rom-com over their most critically acclaimed film of the year).

Films I'm most looking forward to seeing: I’ve seen the films from Afghanistan (B+) and Pakistan (B). If I could choose one more, it would definitely be either Kyrgyzstan’s gorgeous biopic “Kurmandjan Datka” or Lebanon’s audience favorite comedy “Ghadi”.

Feature Debuts: 9! Jamshid Mahmoudi (Afghanistan), Geethu Mohandas (India), Batin Ghobadi (Iraq), Shim Sang-bo (Korea), Sadyk Sher-niyaz (Kyrgyzstan), Amin Dora (Lebanon), Yadavkumar Bhattarai (Nepal), Afia Nathaniel (Pakistan) and Sanif Olek (Singapore).

Number of Comedies: Only two- Thailand romantic dramedy “The Teacher’s Diary” and Lebanon’s “Ghadi”

Number of Animated Films, Documentaries or Horror Films: None.

Oscar History: Oscar has never really warmed to Asian cinema. Iran, Japan and Taiwan are the only countries who have won the award before, while only four others- China, India and Palestine- have been nominated before, plus Hong Kong for two Mainland China-produced films in the 1990s.

Only three directors have been in the race before. This is Ann Hui’s fourth time at the rodeo, having being submitted by Hong Kong in 1995 (“Summer Snow”), 1999 (“Ordinary Heroes”), and 2011 (“A Simple Life”). Reza Mirkarimi was selected twice by Iran, in 2005 (“ So Close, So Far Away”) and 2012 (“A Cube of Sugar”) though they ended up boycotting for political reasons in 2012. Last but not least, Australia’s submitted Rolf deHeer’s “12 Canoes” in 2006.

Number of Female Directors: 5 ladies this year- Ann Hui (Hong Kong), Geetu Mohandas (India), Najwa Najjar (Palestine), Afia Nathaniel (Pakistan) and Mipo Oh (Japan). Nathaniel is the first woman ever to represent Pakistan in the competition.

Oldest and Youngest Directors: 67-year old Ann Hui is one of Hong Kong’s most respected directors, while 31-year old Jamshid Mahmoudi (Afghanistan) makes his feature debut with “A Few Cubic Meters of Love”. Mahmoudi’s family fled Afghanistan and moved to Iran as refugees when he was a year old.

Familiar Faces: Certainly the most familiar face is Tang Wei, star of "Lust, Caution" who plays the lead role in Hong Kong's "Golden Era". Film fans may also recognize Li Baotian ("Ju Dou"), Rena Owen ("Once We Were Warriors") and Egyptian heartthrob Khaled Abol Naga in the Chinese, New Zealand and Palestinian submissions.

Controversies and Changes: Not much in the way of controversy. Most countries chose their nominees without incident, although China did raise a few eyebrows by choosing a French director and a film that nobody has seen over more acclaimed festival fare by native Chinese directors. Then in Thailand, the head of Thailand’s Film Academy politely noted that he was “very surprised” at his country’s decision to pick a fairly unassuming rom-com.

And in India, of course bitter rival directors complained and made unfair allegations about the selection of “Liar’s Dice” because...well...they weren’t selected themselves. This happens every year as Indian directors don’t seem to be capable of congratulating one another!

Omissions: The most surprising omission was the aforementioned “Harmony Lessons” from Kazakhstan. Zhang Yimou’s “Coming Home” and Berlinale winner “Black Ice” were probably too politically sensitive for China. Besides Zhang, two other directors previously recognized by Oscar were snubbed, namely Yoji Yamada for “Little House” (Japan) and Wei Te-sheng who produced “Kano” (Taiwan)

Also missing from the race: Korea’s monster hit “Roaring Currents” (I’m glad they didn’t pick it), Tsai Ming-liang’s “Stray Dogs” (Taiwan), "The Last Executioner" (Thailand), popular Bollywood favorite "Queen" (India), and Middle East dramas "Palestine Stereo" (Palestine) and "Che" (Iran).

Last year's race: Last year, I saw 11 of the 22 films from the Asia-Pacific countries (the only region to record a drop in entries this year) and they were a good lot, netting three spots on the official shortlist. My personal favorite was Saudi Arabia’s “Wadjda” (A), which succeeds on so many different levels and also because it has such a good backstory. Also very strong: Afghanistan’s “Wajma” (A-), Australia’s “The Rocket” (A-), Cambodia’s “The Missing Picture” (B+), Iran’s “The Past” (A-) and Palestine’s “Omar” (A-). Honorable mention to Thailand’s wacky horror film “Countdown” (B+ for a horror film, but definitely not an Oscar candidate) and Singapore’s “Ilo Ilo” (B). Somewhat less successful were China’s “Back to 1942” (B-), Korea’s melodrama “Juvenile Offender” (B-) and Taiwan’s “Soul” (B), though none were bad films. I’ve recently acquired the DVDs from Hong Kong, India, Japan and New Zealand and look forward to adding those to the list.

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