Wednesday, November 18, 2015

FOREIGN OSCAR 2016- The 20 Candidates from the Asia-Pacific Region

The countries from the Asia-Pacific region failed to get a single slot on the shortlist last year....Though the confusing "The Assassin" will be hoping for an arthouse "save" from the elite committee, I expect the region will once again fail to have any films make the 9-film shortlist.

But here are the rankings anyway:


20. AFGHANISTAN- "Utopia" 

Though the film appeared on the original list approved by AMPAS, multi-lingual drama "Utopia" was disqualified shortly after its official screening for containing too much English dialogue. Before the disqualification, I had the film ranked a respective 8th among the twenty Asian contenders.

Directed by UK-based director Hassan Nazer, the film is about an Afghan woman who travels to the UK for fertility treatment but who is inseminated with the sperm of a British man, instead of that of of her Afghan husband. The Afghan Film Academy has protested the disqualification and are asking for reinstatement, arguing that 48 minutes of the film is in Dari and Hindi, whereas only 37 minutes are in English.


19. MALAYSIA- "Men Who Save the World"
18. BANGLADESH- "Jalal's Story"
17. NEPAL- "Talakjung vs. Tulke"
16. VIETNAM- "Jackpot"
15HONG KONG- "To the Fore"
14. IRAN- "Mohammed- Messenger of God"

The directors of these six films should be saying "It's an honor to be nominated!"....and it is! With the exception of Majid Majidi's Muhammaed film, nobody would even be talking about these films if they weren't on the Oscar long list.

Comedies are always at a disadvantage here both because they are perceived as "not serious enough" and also because cultural humor can often be difficult to translate. So, MALAYSIA and VIETNAM can be ruled out fairly quickly. "Men Who Save the World" somewhat surprisingly dominated the Malaysian Film Festival despite its lightweight plot about a village who believes a house is haunted when they mistake a lost African migrant for a ghost. Outside of Malaysia, the film has been said to be silly. "Jackpot", directed by and starring Vietnamese-American Dustin Nguyen ("21 Jump Street") from Vietnam has been a big box-office hit at home for its story about greed and a lost lottery ticket in the increasingly capitalist Communist country. But it's said to be uneven and not an award winner.

BANGLADESH and NEPAL probably did choose their best films, but domestic turmoil and underfunded film industries make it difficult for them to compete at the international level required at the Oscars. "Talakjung vs. Tulke" follows a poor laborer from a once-wealthy aristocratic family during the turmoil of the Nepalese Civil War. I've seen part of the film and it's not particularly memorable. "Jalal's Story" follows the life of an orphan foundling from the time he is found as a baby through adolescence and his eventual life of crime. Reviews have been decidedly mixed.

HONG KONG and IRAN fall under the category of "Must Do Better"....I'm not sure who suggested to the Hong Kong Academy that it would be a good idea to send Dante Lam's unheralded bike-racing melodrama "To the Fore". The commercial film hasn't won awards, nor does anybody think it's anything more than a decent genre film. Nobody even seems to think it's one of Dante Lam's best films. It's a head-scratcher. IRAN's selection of "Muhammed: Messenger of God" is a bit less mysterious. The 50-million dollar film is directed by award-winning director and Oscar nominee Majid Majidi (who's also a regime supporter). It's the most expensive Iranian film ever, and production values are superb. However, a three-hour homage to the life of the Prophet of Islam is not likely to captivate Western viewers. Some, shall we say, may have little interest in him whatsoever. The film has been controversial in the Islamic World for depicting the back of the Prophet's head, but that won't matter at all in the US.

13. PAKISTAN- "Moor"
12. THAILAND- "How to Win At Checkers (Every Time)"
11. IRAQ- "Memories on Stone"
10. TURKEY- "Sivas"

Dog fighting in Turkey......the struggle of LGBT people in Thailand.....Kurdish society after the wars......Corruption amidst the Pakistani railroads.....

These are not subjects that are likely to interest or impress AMPAS voters, giving these four films an uphill battle.

Let's start with TURKEY's grim, depressing and violent boy-and-dog drama "Sivas". While most critics acknowledge its a good film, this is a tough watch, set amidst the violent world of dog-fighting in eastern Turkey. With a homely, 11-year old protagonist and lots of violence against animals, this is a pretty definite no, although I admit they did once somehow choose Hungary's "The Notebook".

From neighboring IRAQI KURDISTAN (though it is representing all of Iraq) comes "Memories on Stone", a drama about two directors trying to find the perfect lead actress for their film about Saddam Hussain's genocide against the Kurdish people. When they find her, they must convince her reluctant family to allow her to take the role. This is a subject that could appeal to AMPAS, but reviews have been positive but not at all enthusiastic.

I've seen the nominee from PAKISTAN- "Moor"- which represents a huge step up for Pakistani cinema. The film has excellent production values, an issue which tends to effectively eliminate films from poorer countries. It's entertaining and interesting, but the film ended quite abruptly and left some questions unanswered. Still, I liked the film and would see another film from this director.

That leaves us with THAILAND and their surprise choice- the LGBT drama "How to Win at Checkers" (Berlinale), directed by Seoul-based American director Josh Kim. The film, about a gay teen who may or may not soon be drafted into the Thai military, deals with LGBT issues, as well as corruption, prostitution and family in both a Thai and universal context. But clocking in at 80 minutes, this small film is almost certain to get lost in the mix.

9. PHILIPPINES- "Heneral Luna"
8. AUSTRALIA- "Arrows of the Thunder Dragon"
7CHINA- "Go Away Mr. Tumor"
6. KOREA- "The Throne"

Towards the middle of the group are these four underdogs.

From the PHILIPPINES comes "Heneral Luna", a two-and-a-half hour 19th century historical drama about one of the most important figures in the Filipino independence movement. This is very relevant to Filipino audiences, but may leave American audiences confused and disinterested. I was surprised by the response to "Libertador" (Venezuela) last year, but unlike Simon Boliva, Heneral Luna is an unknown Stateside. I don't see this getting anywhere.

SOUTH KOREA is still fighting for its first Oscar nomination and "The Throne" (aka "Sado") looks great. This period drama set in the 18th century focuses on the strained relationship between one of Korea's most well-known kings and his son, Crown Prince Sado. All Koreans know how this story ends (though Western audiences won't) but this film has been notable for transforming the character of the prince (usually portrayed as mentally ill and violent) into a more human character. I live in South Korea and nobody seems "wowed" by the film. When I saw it, I felt the first hour was historically interesting, while the second hour deteriorated into melodramatic soap opera. My European friend liked the second half, but felt the first hour was boring. In any case, AMPAS has never plumped for a Korean film, and this is not their best effort.

The film representing AUSTRALIA should probably be representing BHUTAN, which has been absent from this competition since 1999. Directed by an Australian who is also a former Buddhist monk but set in the remote Himalayan kingdom, this was one of the surprises on the Oscar list. Based on a true story, it's about a young woman growing up in rural Bhutan in the 1980s who wants to train in the male-dominated national sport of archery. There's virtually no information on it online, making it difficult to predict its chances. However, this is an effort by a non-professional director; it looks fascinating and I can't wait to see it myself but it's unlikely to advance.

Last but not least is CHINA's "Go Away Mr. Tumor", a box-office hit comedy about a woman battling cancer. It was a surprise last-minute replacement for "Wolf Totem" and even the film's director initially thought the film's selection was a joke. I was set to rank the film in the bottom tier until I read some of the reviews. Based on a true story of a female blogger who documented her battle against cancer (which she lost at age 30), this is genuinely supposed to be a good film. Like "50/50", it has been praised for successfully treading the line between comedy and tragedy. It won't make the finals, but it was perhaps not as bad a choice as I first thought.


5. CAMBODIA- "The Last Reel"
4. SINGAPORE- "7 Letters"
3. JAPAN- "100-Yen Love"

2. INDIA- "Court"
I don't expect any of these four films to make the Oscar shortlist, but I do think they will place well in the rankings (which we will never know). Here's hoping they will impress the committee enough to get them a US distribution deal.

The film with the best chance is clearly INDIA's appropriately-titled courtroom drama "Court", which won two awards in Venice. Thank you to India for finally choosing a good film! "Court" is a scathing yet humorous critique of the Indian judicial system, in which a 65-year old singer facing a patently ridiculous charge of inciting a man to suicide with one of his songs. The film has been warmly received and will proudly represent India, though that doesn't mean it will place high enough to be nominated. Said to be "cerebral", it sounds similar in tone to "I Just Didn't Do It" (Japan), another well-received legal drama which failed to make the finals.

Speaking of JAPAN, I'm kicking myself for missing out on indie drama "100-Yen Love" at a local film festival earlier this year. A slacker drama with an atypical protagonist, the film focuses on a 30-year old woman who ditches her lonely life by taking up amateur boxing. It's also been warmly received, although this isn't the sort of film Oscar usually recognizes (i.e. indie drama, female-driven films).

The Southeast Asian underdogs of CAMBODIA and SINGAPORE will also likely score well this year. "7 Letters" consists of seven short films by seven of the country's leading directors (including Eric Khoo and Royston Tan, who are somewhat well-known overseas), and was put together as part of celebrations of the country's 50th anniversary of independence. Perhaps a bit too local to appeal to a wide international audience, it features the many languages, traditions, ethnicities and even foods of this tiny country. However, like all omnibus films, some films are better than others. "The Last Reel" focuses on a rebellious young woman who discovers that her mother was a major film star in the past. In the United States, that might be the plot for a light comedy but in Cambodia this has a different meaning, as all artists and intellectuals were purged and killed in the 1975-1979 Khmer Rouge genocide. The film has been developing quite a strong reputation on the film festival circuit over the past year and despite a low budget and debutante director, Variety and the Hollywood Reporter gave the film great reviews.

1. TAIWAN- "The Assassin"

I did not like "The Assassin". Neither will the large committee. While the production design is worthy of an Oscar and the costumes and cinematography are beautiful, this convoluted story of a female assassin negotiating family intrigue in medieval China is confusing with little to no character development. I frequently did not understand who the characters were, not what they were doing. Having said that, the film won Best Director at Cannes and has a rabid fan base. Thus, the film is a dark horse for one of the three elite slots. It may get one, but I'm rooting against them.

One day, I'll have to see the film again with a rewind button and see if I can figure it out. I doubt I'll care.

Now the Statistics:

Number of Asia-Pacific countries that have participated in the past: 26

Number of Asia-Pacific countries participating this year:  20

Number of debuts: None.

Number of countries opting out:  6. The only shocker was INDONESIA, a fairly prolific film-making country that has sent films nine out of the past ten years. Right before the announcement, I even read an article from the Indonesian press citing the importance of having Indonesian films participate in international competitions like the Oscars. They had plenty to choose from this year, including audience pleaser "Golden Cane Warrior", local historical epic "Guru Bangsa: Tjokroaminoto" and "Battle of Surabaya", their first stab at high-quality Miyazaki-style animation.

BHUTAN (last submitted 1999), FIJI and MONGOLIA (2005) and SRI LANKA (2009) have only ever submitted once or twice in Oscar history, so their absence is not unexpected. The Bhutanese are actually represented by the Australian film, which was filmed in Bhutan with a Bhutanese cast. English-speaking NEW ZEALAND probably didn't have any eligible foreign language films. 

Number of countries I predicted correctly:  Only 5 out of 20- Cambodia, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Taiwan though I also came super-close with Iraq. 

Already Seen: 4- Pakistan, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand though I plan to see the Nepali film soon, which is available free on YouTube.

Films I'm most looking forward to seeing: It's a tough decision, but I'd have to go with CAMBODIA and "The Last Reel", whose plot sounds really interesting. 

Feature Debuts:   Six. The directors from Australia, Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Thailand and Turkey are all making their feature film debuts,  

Number of Female Directors:  Not many! The only film directed by a woman is "The Last Reel" (Cambodia), directed by Kulikar Sotho. However, one of the seven Singaporean short films in "7 Letters" was directed by female helmer Tan Pin Pin. 

Oldest and Youngest Directors:  68-year auteur Hou Hsiao-Hsien of TAIWAN and 28-year old newbie Chaitanya Tamhane of INDIA. 

Number of Foreign Languages Represented:   Four films are majority in Mandarin Chinese (China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan), while two more are in Persian (Afghanistan and Iran). The others are mostly in Bengali, Dzongkha, Filipino, Hindi, Japanese, Khmer, Korean, Malay, Nepali, Tagalog, Thai, Turkish, Urdu and Vietnamese. Lots of films are multi-lingual, so you'll be able to hear some Cantonese (Hong Kong), Hokkien and Tamil (Singapore), Marathi and Gujarati (India) and Pashto (Pakistan) as well. 

Number of Comedies:  Four- China, India, Malaysia and Vietnam

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

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: Not many….maybe two or three.    

Highest profile film:  Definitely TAIWAN and "The Assassin", which won Best Director at Cannes. Of course, that doesn't mean it's a good or coherent film!

Oscar History:  The only Oscar nominee is IRAN's Majid Majidi who is representing Iran for the fifth time, after getting an Oscar nomination for "Children of Heaven" (1998) and also competing with "The Color of Paradise" (1999), "Baran" (2001) and "Song of Sparrows" (2008). TAIWAN's Hou Hsiao-Hsien has been in the race twice before for "A City of Sadness" (1989) and "Flowers of Shanghai" (1998), while KOREA's Lee Joon-ik had "The King & the Clown" in competition in 2006. That year, it was clearly one of the best films on the list. From SINGAPORE's "7 Letters", Eric Khoo & Royston Tan have also represented the city-state at the Oscars.

Of the 20 countries, only three have won the Oscar (Iran, Japan and Taiwan), while six more have been nominated. Australia and Turkey have been shortlisted once, while the other nine are waiting for their first Oscar recognition (inexplicably including South Korea)

Best & Worst Decisions: The smartest move was definitely INDIA, choosing the intelligent, warmly received "Court" over a series of Bollywood fluff and low-budget regional pics. Even if "Court" fails to make the Final Nine, this clearly appears to have been the film with the best shot. IRAQ,  PAKISTAN and SINGAPORE also chose wisely.

IRAN made the group's dumbest move, choosing religious epic "Mohammed". Despite excellent production values, this paean to the Prophet of Islam is hardly likely to appeal to a Western audience (would the USA submit "The Passion of Christ" to the Iranian Oscars?). CHINA, HONG KONG, KOREA and VIETNAM also picked the wrong films. 

Controversies and Changes:  Of course, the biggest controversy came from CHINA when likely nominee "Wolf Totem" was mysteriously disqualified for lack of Chinese input, even though its cast and much of its crew came from China. French director Jean-Jacques Annaud was baffled, as films from Afghanistan, France, Montenegro and Thailand were accepted despite their foreign directors. 

Indians usually jealously pounce and tear apart the film selected to represent the country, but the selection of "Court" was fairly warmly received, though a member of the selection committee resigned in protest, arguing that the head of the committee was lobbying against the selection of "Court". Since "Court" was the eventual winner, his complaints are rather puzzling.

Afghanistan was later disqualified for having too much English, although they are appealing the decision.

Omissions:     The most glaring absence was "Ode to My Father", the nostalgic Korean blockbuster hit following a Korean man over five decades, from his escape from North Korea during the Korean War, through Korea's economic miracle. Other prominent snubbed films include "Baahubali" (India), "Mina Walking" (Afghanistan), "Mountains May Depart" (China), "Pale Moon" (Japan) and "Taklub" (Philippines). 

Familiar Faces:  Former sex symbol Shu Qi takes on a more serious role, playing the title character in Taiwan's "The Assassin". Dustin Nguyen (Vietnam) was a TV star in the United States in the 80s (21 Jump Street) and 90s (V.I.P.). Oscar winner Juliette Binoche has a cameo in Singapore's "7 Letters". You also may recognize Daniel Wu ("Go Away Mr. Tumor"), Satoshi Tsumabuki ("The Assassin") and Song Kang-ho ("The Throne")

Last year's race:   Last year, these countries sent 19 films,and got zero spots on the shortlist....I only managed to see the ones from Afghanistan (B+), Australia (B+), Japan (B-), New Zealand (B+), and Pakistan (B) though I've got the DVDs from Indonesia and Korea sitting at home. 


Dan said...

Glad to hear that someone else disliked "The Assassin." I found it confusing, boring, and perhaps overly stylized. I'd love to see it underperform.

Ilia Ginzburg said...

Afghanistan - As far as I remember "The Black Tulip" was also first (the same like "Utopia", it was in the list) disqualificated, but was approved after appeal. So who knows...

Nepal - If someone wants to watch it it's available on youtube (I think that it's even the official channel) with Engsub, though it gets out of sync (subs) toward the end and I'm not sure that the trouble to get it back is worth. Somehow it reminds "Rang De Basanti" (which I hated), because it starts as silly comedy, but turns into a revolutionary drama in the midpoint.

Hong-Kong - The worst film of the competition (after I've seen about 30% of the submission). It has terrible editing, direction decision (or actually, the person who thought that it'll be a bright idea to put background music in every 2nd scene), screenplay and even acting (in some parts).

Iraq - Quite good, but not remarkable enough.

China - It's not just "50/50", but a crazy mix between "Amelie" and "50/50", but it works! Regarding your comment about the choice and examples from other submissions. Deniz Gamze Erguven is French. Yeah, she was probably born in Turkey, but she has her film studies in France and all her previous films were made there, so I suppose that unlike Jean-Jacques Annaud, she's citizen of the country she represents.

Japan - Unfortunately, this romantic flic about a loser girl is too strange (both cinematically and naratively) to be taken serious.

India - The comparison with "I Just Didn't Do It" is totally wrong. While Japanese submission was quite dynamic "regular" court drama (a good one, btw), "Court" contains from court scenes (sometimes from different cases that takes place in the court previously to the main one) and scenes from the life of attorney, public prosecutor and even the judge, while most of them have nothing to do with character or plot development. So, how would I put it... It seems that the director decided to treat the viewers the same way that Indian jurisdiction treats Innocent people.

Taiwan - I've nothing to add to your and Dan's words, but just to agree and be surprised with its prize from Cannes.