Sunday, November 29, 2015

FOREIGN OSCAR 2016- The 20 Candidates from the Latin America, Africa and the Arab World


Here are the twenty nominees from Africa, Latin America and the Arab World:

NO CHANCE:
20. MOROCCO- "Aida"
19. SOUTH AFRICA- "Thina Sobabili: The Two Of Us"
18. LEBANON- "Void"
17. PARAGUAY- "Cloudy Times" (El tiempo nublado)
16. PALESTINE- "The Wanted 18"


With the Latin American films so strong this year, the bottom tier here includes most of the African and Arab films, plus debutante Paraguay.

For the second year in a row, the biggest long-shot comes from MOROCCO, which has selected an obscure drama out of left field that virtually nobody has seen or heard of. “Aida” is the story of a Jewish-Moroccan emigrée in France who returns to her Moroccan homeland when she learns she has terminal cancer. There, it seems, she reconnects with an old lover. There’s virtually no information on it online, but the one review I read was unkind, citing bizarre tonal shifts (focusing on cancer, then romance) and factual misrepresentations of the Jewish community. It also has the lowest rating on IMDB of this particular group (beating only Australia and Russia worldwide). It’s not a contender.


Lebanon and South Africa have selected films by up-and-coming 20-something directors just starting out their careers. The Zulu-language “The Two of Us” is a heart-wrenching drama about two siblings struggling to survive in modern-day SOUTH AFRICA. The overprotective brother resorts to petty crime; the sister to prostitution. Filmed in seven days as a master’s thesis project, “Two of Us” was made under severe budgetary constraints. A film like this won’t threaten for a nomination. Similarly, “Void” from LEBANON is a collaboration of seven young directors from the country’s Notre Dame University. The film tells six separate stories of Lebanese women suffering from the disappearances of male relatives (sons, husbands, brothers etc.) during Lebanon’s long civil war. Once again, I’m sure it’s a good film but even a Lebanese film expert I spoke to admitted that it’s not an Oscar contender. It should just be proud to represent Lebanon in the race.

Palestine and Paraguay have selected documentaries; never an easy sell in this category. “Cloudy Times” beat out the favored biopic “Mangore” to be the first-ever submission from the South American nation of PARAGUAY. It’s said to be a well-made documentary, but a claustrophobic and difficult watch. It follows director Arami Ullon’s efforts to care for her increasingly ill mother who suffers from Alzheimers. PALESTINE goes a bit lighter with animated documentary “The Wanted 18”, about Israel’s efforts to destroy a Palestinian town’s cattle herd, allegedly because the cows made the town too self-sufficient. I understand it was initially made in English but also dubbed into Arabic and Hebrew versions for theatrical release. Incorporating Claymation cows and real-life interviews, this is a quirky and well-reviewed film, but perhaps a little too “outside the box” to score here. You can see the English-language version on iTunes.  

TOO SMALL TO COMPETE
15. DOMINICAN REPUBLIC- "Sand Dollars" (Dólares de arena)
14. COSTA RICA- "Imprisoned" (Presos)
13. URUGUAY- "A Moonless Night" (Una Noche Sin Luna)
12. VENEZUELA- "Gone With the River" (Dauna, lo que lleva el río)

These four films hail from Latin America’s smaller film-making nations. Despite good reviews, I believe they are all way too "small" to seriously make the next round. As they always do, URUGUAY has submitted a low-key comedy-drama showcasing their droll national sense of humor. “A Moonless Night” follows three lonely people who find themselves in a small town on New Year’s Eve (summertime in Uruguay). Though it won the 2014 Zurich Film Festival, there wasn’t much competition and it won’t stand out here. Lesbian drama “Sand Dollars” from the DOMINICAN REPUBLIC  is also too low-key to score here. Most reviewers (including me) were wowed by the fearless performance of Geraldine Chaplin (Charlie’s daughter) as a Caucasian “sugar-mommy” who falls in love with a (straight?) local Dominican girl in a tourist town. The film is good, but it’s more notable for the lead performance than anything else. COSTA RICA has “Imprisoned” (Presos), a local box-office hit (#2 in the country’s history) about a young woman who falls in love with a prison inmate. It was also praised for its strong performances, but with little buzz, it will likely get lost in the mix of 80 foreign films. As for VENEZUELA, they’ve chosen an interesting drama in the indigenous language of Warao, spoken by just 30,000 people along the northeastern coast. It’s about a Warao woman torn between her family and the traditions of her culture on the one hand, and her desire to get a modern education and a job in the city on the other. Using four actresses, it follows the course of her life over several decades. All four: good but not good enough. 

MIDDLE OF THE PACK:

11. COTE D'IVOIRE- "Run"
10. ALGERIA- "Crepuscule des ombres" (Twilight of Shadows)
9. PERU- "NN"
8. MEXICO- "600 Miles" (600 Millas)

The COTE D’IVOIRE rejoins the Oscar race after a 40-year absence with “Run”, an exciting thriller about a young man who has just assassinated an unnamed African country’s Prime Minister-cum-dictator. As he tries to escape, he reflects on the moments in his life that brought him to this moment in time. In terms of remake potential, this film ranks near the top, but even “Run Lola Run” couldn’t score a nomination in this category and while reviews have been positive, most critics note this is definitely the work of a debutante director. It premiered at Cannes 2014 and has had a healthy run internationally since then. Welcome back, to Cote d’Ivoire! I can’t wait to see the film.

MEXICO has also chosen a thriller, albeit a slightly more cerebral one. Co-starring Tim Roth as an American ATF agent kidnapped by a Mexican gun runner working for a powerful gang, I thought the film would have too much English to qualify. In this unorthodox road movie, the two men strike up an unlikely friendship during the 600 mile-journey to the gang's headquarters. “600 Miles” sounds promising and AMPAS likes movies that espouse liberal causes (gun control) and that feature comforting amounts of English dialogue (a break from subtitles), but none of Mexico’s border dramas (“Miss Bala”, “Backyard”) have been nominated yet. Reviews for "600 Miles" haven’t been quite strong enough to make it to the next round. PERU’s “NN” has no buzz but those that have seen it say it’s quite a powerful film. It’s about forensics experts who exhume a mass grave of bodies that appear to have been killed during Peru’s military dictatorship. It’s a cold, grim film and American audiences may lack the political background to fully understand it. 

The same may prove true for ALGERIA and “Twilight of Shadows”. Director Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina won the Palme d’Or at Cannes way back in 1975 and he came out of retirement to make this film focusing on three opposing personalities during Algeria’s war of independence: a brutal French commander, an Algerian freedom fighter, and a young French soldier sympathetic to the Algerian cause. The film sounds great, but there is zero buzz and the film has failed to screen at any major film festivals despite Lakhdar-Hamina’s name and reputation. Though the desert filmmaking may impress, the anti-colonial rhetoric and Algerian politics may confuse. 




DARK HORSES:
7. GUATEMALA- "Ixcanul"
6. ETHIOPIA- "Lamb"
5. COLOMBIA- "Embrace of the Serpent"


I was lucky enough to see all three of these cultural odysseys at the Busan International Film Festival in October. All three of them are a fascinating window into cultures that we know little about in the West. All three also have a passionate fan base (especially Colombia). Ultimately, I’m not sure any of them can make it to the next round, but they could surprise. Will the elite committee decide to choose "one" or will they all cancel each other out? I’m not sure why, but these sort of cultural films seem to have lost favor in recent years. 

ETHIOPIA’s “Lamb” is easily the most entertaining film of the bunch,- a coming-of-age drama with a likable child protagonist, beautifully filmed vistas and an engaging family of interesting characters. Ephraim’s father is forced to leave his young son with distant relatives after the death of the boy’s mother. The boy brings his beloved pet lamb along, but it soon becomes clear that his pet is set to become part of an upcoming holiday feast.

COLOMBIA's "Embrace of the Serpent" is much more work. Filmed in black and white, primarily in four indigenous languages and telling two separate stories about encounters between Western explorers and indigenous people forty years apart, it poses thought-provoking questions and yet still remains accessible. It’s an impressive piece of filmmaking though I wonder if the B&W photography (which not everyone likes) and the subject matter may be too “challenging” for the Academy. It would certainly be a deserving first nominee for Colombia. I think “Serpent” has the edge over the Kakchikel-language “Ixcanul”, a drama from GUATEMALA about a bored Mayan teenager betrothed to the son of a wealthy landlord who becomes pregnant by another man. Filmed almost documentary-style, it’s a much smaller film than the other two and despite equally strong reviews and an arguably stronger character arc, it has a weaker chance than the other two.  It's Guatemala's first submission in twenty years and will likely place just outside the shortlist. 

STRONG POSSIBILITIES:
4. BRAZIL- "The Second Mother"
3. JORDAN- "Theeb"
2. CHILE- "El club"


These three films are definitely threats for the shortlist. Let’s look at the Pros and Cons:

CRITICS CHOICE: “Theeb” (JORDAN)
Summary: A 10-year old Bedouin boy is forced to fend for himself against bandits in the deserts of 1915 Arabia. Second-ever submission from the Kingdom of Jordan.
Pros: Beautifully filmed desert scenery. Was a critical success during its limited US release. Oscar loves movies about kids, and this is definitely an original take on that genre. Survival drama accessible to all. Best Director, Venice Horizons.
Cons: As a filmmaking nation, Jordan is relatively unknown. The film's ending raises questions.

AUDIENCE FAVORITE: “The Second Mother” (BRAZIL)
Summary: A hard-working Brazilian maid has a reasonably comfortable life living with a wealthy family and their 17-year old son, but things turn chaotic when her estranged daughter moves herself in. 
Pros: Audiences seem to adore the film and the performance by the lead actress. Accessible family drama. Already released in the US. Two awards at Berlinale 2015.
Cons: Though Americans can certainly understand the “class differences”, many brasileiros fear much of the nuance will be lost outside of Brazil. Some complain that the film is “good” but by no means “great”. The committee almost never chooses female-driven pics in this category.

AUTEUR CHOICE: “El club” (CHILE)
Summary: A counselor visits a group of disgraced priests and nuns sequestered in a remote location until their crimes are investigated by the church. 
Pros: Silver Bear in Berlin 2015. Director Pablo Larrain has already found favor with the Academy for “No”. Juicy subject matter, critically acclaimed.

Cons:  Some critics say the dark drama is “smart” but “not mainstream”. Catholic child abuse already covered this year with “Spotlight”

Bottom Line: Everybody's in with a chance, with CHILE an especially strong contender to get "saved", JORDAN staying strong and BRAZIL losing buzz to COLOMBIA

FRONT-RUNNER:
1. ARGENTINA- "El clan"

Once again, the clear front-runner from this region is ARGENTINA, the only Latin American country ever to win the Foreign Film Oscar (twice). “El clan” is a crime-thriller (the last time Argentina sent one of these, they won) based on a horrific true story that shocked the nation. In the early 1980s, the wealthy, upper-class Puccio family kidnapped, ransomed and murdered several of their wealthy neighbors. The film has won awards at arthouse festivals (Best Director, Venice), and yet is mainstream enough to be a box-office hit in Argentina, and though it is chilling and violent, I’ve heard it is not too much so that it will scare off conservative Oscar voters. This one is probably in. 

Now the Statistics:

Number of countries from these regions who have participated in the past: 36

Number of countries participating this year:  20, not including Panama which announced a film (Caja 25) that ultimately failed to appear on the list. 

Number of debuts: 1- Paraguay

Number of countries opting out:  Technically 16, but PUERTO RICO is no longer invited and ten (mostly African) other countries have only ever sent films once or twice.

The surprise absentees were BOLIVIA, CUBA, ECUADOR and EGYPT (who all sent films last year) plus NICARAGUA. Official selection committees from Bolivia and Cuba DID MEET but both announced that they had formally decided not to send any of the eligible films being considered. Apparently in Bolivia, the National Film Board emphasized the importance of sending a film, but the selection committee still said no. (why?!) Even more surprising was the absence of Egypt which has sent films fairly regularly as of late and which had also announced the formation of a selection committee that would choose a film after Eid....but then made no further announcement. No idea what happened there. 

Number of countries I predicted correctly:  13 out of 20! Very successful! Out of Latin America, I missed only Mexico (thinking "600 Miles" had too much English), Peru and the documentary from Paraguay. 

Already Seen: 5- Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ethiopia, Guatemala and Jordan

Film I'm most looking forward to seeing: "El club" from CHILE

Feature Debuts: Lots. In addition to the seven Lebanese student directors, ten others are making their feature film debuts- Jayro Bustamante, Mario Crespo (I think), Philippe Lacôte, Ernest Nkosie, Naji Abu Nowar, Gabriel Ripstein, Amer Shomali, Germán Tejeira, Arami Ullon and Yared Zeleke.

Number of Female Directors: Four of the films are directed or co-directed by women, including three from Latin America: Anna Muylaert (Brazil), Laura Amelia Guzman (Dominican Republic) and Arami Ullón (Paraguay). The Lebanese submission, "Void" is an omnibus co-directed by three women (Christelle Ighniades, Maria Abdl Karim and Zeina Makki) and four men. The disqualified Panamian film was also co-directed by two women.

Oldest and Youngest Directors:  85-year old Mohammed Lakhdar Hamina of ALGERIA came out of retirement to make "Crespuscule des ombres". The youngest directors are the seven co-directors of LEBANON's "Void", who range in age from 23 to 28. 

Number of Foreign Languages Represented:  Obviously, eight of the films are mostly in Spanish but what's interesting is that three of the Spanish-speaking countries chose films that are mostly in indigenous languages- Kaqchikel (Guatemala), Warao (Venezuela) and Cuveo (alongside a number of indigenous Amazon languages, in the Colombian film). This is great news for indigenous communities.

We also have two films made in Arabic (Lebanon and Jordan), plus one each in Amharic, French, Portuguese and Zulu. The Algerian and Moroccan films seem to be roughly 50-50 Arabic/French. The animated Palestinian film seems to have been made in English but dubbed into several world languages, including an Arabic version screened by AMPAS and Hebrew.

Number of Comedies:  The closest thing to a comedy is Uruguay's dramedy "A Moonless Night"

Number of Animated Films and Documentaries:  One animated documentary (Palestine) plus two standard documentaries from Panama (disqualified) and Paraguay. 

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: Quite a few. Definitely seven.

Highest profile film: Probably Brazil's "The Second Mother", though Argentina might disagree. 

Oscar History:  Five of the directors have been here before, including Pablo Larrain (Chile) who got an Oscar nomination for "No" and also competed with "Tony Manero". The others are Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina (Algeria) who competed in 1975, 1982 and 1987, Ciro Guerra (Colombia), who competed in 2005 and 2009 ("Wandering Shadows" and "The Wind Journeys"), Esteban Ramírez (Costa Rica) in 2005 ("Caribe") and Pablo Trapero (Argentina) in 2008 and 2010 ("Leonera" and "Carancho"),

Four countries (Algeria, Argentina, South Africa and, bizarrely, Cote d'Ivoire) have won the Oscar, while five more (Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Palestine and Peru) have racked up nominations. 

Best & Worst Decisions: All the Latin Americans chose well, except for the aforementioned Bolivians and Cubans who snubbed all their submitted films. MOROCCO and SOUTH AFRICA probably made the worst choices. 

Controversies and Changes:  Documentary "Caja 25" was announced as the official selection of PANAMA, beating out one other film (a surfing documentary). However, the film was mysteriously absent from the final list, and (unlike "Wolf Totem" and "Utopia") I haven't been able to find any official explanation online.

Omissions:   It's a bad year for black comedies. Like with Hungary's "Liza the Fox Fairy", I was really hoping we'd see the uproarious, violent beauty pageant satire "3 Beauties" in the race, especially after it won Best Venezuelan Film at their national film festival. But it lost to more serious fare. Also omitted: "Paulina" (La patota) from Argentina, "Land and Shade" from Colombia, "The Vanished Elephant" from Peru, "Treurgrond" from South Africa and "The Thin Yellow Line" (Mexico). 


Familiar Faces:  Clearly the biggest name is Oscar nominee Tim Roth, who co-stars in “600 Miles” as an American DEA agent, though 71-year old Geraldine Chaplin (“Dr. Zhivago”) is arguably equally accomplished. I’m also a fan of Belgium’s Jan Bijvoet (“Borgman”) who co-stars in Colombia’s “Embrace of the Serpent”. Other than these three gringos, the stars of the Argentine (Guillermo Francella, “The Secret in Their Eyes”) and Chilean films (Alfredo Castro, “Tony Manero”) may be familiar to fans of Latin American cinema.

Last year's race:  Last year, these countries sent a total of 21 films. I saw the two Oscar nominees, which were definitely deserving- ARGENTINA's "Wild Tales" (A) and MAURITANIA's "Timbuktu" (A)- as well as the much maligned "Cantinflas" (B+) from MEXICO which I thought was quite good. Less interesting were BRAZIL's "The Way He Looks" (B) and URUGUAY's disappointing "Mr. Kaplan" (B-).


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:

DISQUALIFIED:

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.

BETTER LUCK NEXT YEAR

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.






ONLY SLIGHTLY BETTER
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.

MIDDLE OF THE PACK
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.


UNLIKELY DARK HORSES


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.

THE FAVORITE:
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.