Tuesday, December 13, 2016

2017 Foreign Oscar Predictions- ASIA (18 films)

And here are the 19 films from Asia. Really, almost none of these films have any chance at all to be nominated....though once again SINGAPORE is a potential dark horse.

19. AFGHANISTAN- "Parting" 

Afghanistan's film industry is always struggling but the produce some absolutely beautiful films that can compete with the world's best. This is why it's disappointing that for the second year in a row, they're not on the official list. Last year, "Utopia" was disqualified after being accepted because it had too much English. And this year, "Parting" (Busan 2016) didn't even make the shortlist. No official reason was given. Some have speculated that this film about Afghans fleeing to Iran was judged to be a majority Iranian film (the director is an Afghan-born refugee who moved to Iran as a child). But the director's brother had a similar co-production accepted to compete for Afghanistan a few years ago. Others have speculated that it didn't have a qualifying run in Afghanistan. I'm not sure what the reason is. If it's the first, I'm angry. If it's the second, hopefully we'll see "Parting" in competition next year (There is precedence for this...."Basain" from Nepal, and "Ghadi" from Lebanon).


18. THAILAND- "Karma"
17. PAKISTAN- "Mah-e-Mir"
16. CAMBODIA- "Before the Fall"
15. TAIWAN- "Hang In There, Kids!"
14. BANGLADESH- "The Unnamed"

THAILAND has sent a horror movie about a sinful young monk who confronts some sort of demon/ghost for his transgressions with a cute local girl. And no matter how good a movie about a demon attacking a monk is, it's not going to be nominated for an Oscar. And I think Thailand knows that by now. And they don't care. This film was banned in Thailand and then re-edited and released and turned out to be quite a box-office success.

Neighboring CAMBODIA has selected "Before the Fall", a gonzo action thriller about a love triangle between an American man, a Frenchman and a local Cambodian girl in 1975 right before the genocidal Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh. Directed by Australian Ian White, this was a last-minute surprise on the Oscar shortlist. It looks like a fun flick made on a low-budget but the over-the-top acting (especially from the French lead who is a model in real life) and staged fighting mean Cambodia is a bit out of its league here. Still, glad to see them here!

PAKISTAN had a weak year and almost decided not to send a film at all. They ended up selecting "Mah-e-Mir", about a modern-day poet who delves into the life of a renowned 18th century poet. Urdu poetry is not likely to interest Western audiences (and poetry is extremely hard to translate well in subtitles) and the film did not enthuse audiences here in Pakistan. Most people here say it's well-filmed but boring and nobody expects it to do well. Still, I'm trying to find a legal copy so I can judge for myself! Nearby BANGLADESH has selected "The Unnamed", a drama centered on the human trafficking trade. In the film, a family awaits the coffin of a Bangladeshi laborer who died in the Gulf. They problem? The family knows their relative is alive and living illegally in Italy....so who is in the coffin? The answer to that question is eventually answered (becoming another family's tragedy) with excellent storytelling and lots of black humor....but production values in Bangladesh are always a challenge.

And there's TAIWAN...."Hang In There Kids" is a saccharine family drama about three boys from poor Aboriginal communities (they speak Atayal with their families but Mandarin Chinese at school) and their misadventures in their village, with their teacher and with their parents. It's a perfectly nice film that makes the Taiwanese countryside look gorgeous but it's a bit lightweight and forgettable to make an impact here.

13. INDONESIA- "Letters from Prague"
12. CHINA- "Xuan Zang"
11. KAZAKHSTAN- "Amanat"
10. MALAYSIA- "Redha" (Beautiful Pain)
9. HONG KONG- "Port of Call"

INDONESIA has once again chosen a soapy historical drama- "Letters From Prague"- which sheds light on a little-known period in Indonesian history when Indonesians living abroad were required to swear their allegiance to the new revolutionary government when Suharto took over in a coup d'etat....or forced to renounce their citizenship and live in exile forever. It's an important historical moment for Indonesia but the obscure history and usual Indonesian melodramatics and music (by local R+B star Glenn Fredly) probably won't interest Western viewers. The same will probably go for "Amanat" from KAZAKHSTAN. Those few who have seen the film say it's a good one with high production values, but this film which showcases Kazakh struggles against Russian imperialism during the time of the tsars (1830-1840s....lots of battle scenes, warriors and camels), Stalin (1940s) and Khruschev (1960-1970s) will probably also be too confusing and nationalistic for outside viewers to get the whole story.

Historical dramas don't often do well in this category when the historical elements are confusing or unknown to an American audience who rarely know much more than WWII and Vietnam. And so, Indonesia and Kazakhstan are a distinct disadvantage.

CHINA has gone even further back in history (the 7th century A.D.) with "Xuan Zang", the well-known (in China) story of a young monk who journeys 25,000 kilometers on foot to India to obtain ancient Buddhist scriptures. Reviews almost all say the exact same thing- the visuals and cinematography will dazzle you....and the film will put you to sleep. Not a contender. The best of the three Chinese-language films- HONG KONG's dark crime drama "Port of Call" won't do much better. Reviews have been mixed for this dark procedural thriller in which the murder mystery focuses not on "who" but "why". I watched it last night and I actually thought this was quite a daring film, it's backward and forward timelines can be confusing and ultimately the story doesn't 100% come together ....also, some people clearly don't like the film.

MALAYSIA  is looking to become a regular competitor, submitting for the fourth time with "Redha" (aka "Beautiful Pain") a family drama about parents struggling with raising an autistic child. The father in particular is unable to accept his son as he is. This is probably Malaysia's best effort so far (after sending an action movie, a overwrought period piece and a un-PC comedy) but it's not going to be good enough to make it to the next round. Critics say it's a strong but sentimental film highlighting an important topic for Malaysians, but one that may be a bit too basic on autism for the West.

8. PHILIPPINES- "Ma' Rosa"
7. JAPAN- "Nagasaki, Memories of My Son"
6. INDIA- "Interrogation"

This year, the films from Japan and the Philippines have their fans....just not nearly enough of them. Oscar has never been a fan of the gritty, "poverty porn" that forms the mainstay of Filipino arthouse cinema (and which was the subject of one of the Philippines' best-ever Oscar submissions, satire "Woman in the Septic Tank") so the PHILIPPINES entry "Ma' Rosa" is automatically out of the running. This is Brillante Mendoza's first-ever time representing the Philippines but "Ma" is not considered his best work and most who like the film praise Cannes Best Actress winner Jaclyn Rose more than the film itself. This is the story of two impoverished parents arrested for small-time drug dealing, leaving their kids to fend for themselves. It's dark, grim and a difficult film to watch.

JAPAN has chosen the tearjerker "Nagasaki: Memories of My Son", about an elderly mother visited my the ghost of her son, who was killed in the atomic bombings on Nagasaki. I haven't seen "Nagasaki", but despite the important subject matter, reviews have been decidedly mixed. It's a stirring subject featuring some of Japan's best living actors, but critics note the film is heavy on dialogue and has bizarre comic moments that might make sense in Japan but not in the West. It seems this film doesn't translate very well.

Somewhat more likely is the film from INDIA. Once again, India has chosen well. "Interrogation" is a gritty Tamil-language film about a group of Tamil immigrants in Telugu-speaking Andhra Pradesh who are accused of a brutal crime. Just as it appears they've found a way out, things get worse. Once again, I don't think Oscar is likely to rate the film highly enough to make the next round, but this is a quality film that will proudly represent India.

5. NEPAL- "The Black Hen"
4. KYRGYZSTAN- "A Father's Will"
3. VIETNAM- "Yellow Flowers on Green Grass"

Once upon a time, the foreign Oscar category loved exotic stories from exotic countries, seeing how much lived (especially kids) in a dozen different countrysides. However, the days of "Dersu Uzala", "Children of Heaven" and "Caravan" are largely gone, replaced with more urban and/or historical films (last year's "Theeb" and "Mustang" were notable exceptions).

Vietnam and Nepal have both chosen films in the "cute kids with difficult lives coming-of-age in the beautiful countryside" sub-genre. VIETNAM's "Yellow Flowers on Green Grass" was a big hit at home and has snagged a US distributor (Fortissimo) and bookings in "Kids" sections of international film festivals for its story of kids growing up in rural Vietnam in the 1980s.  Based on a novel, it jumps from story to story and while the countryside look idyllic, these kids run into some pretty tough problems (including one boy who becomes paralyzed). NEPAL's "The Black Hen" may be the best-reviewed Nepali film since Oscar nominee "Caravan" (which was actually directed by a Frenchman), and one of the best-traveled (Venice, Busan, Tokyo etc.) too. The plot concerns two boys from different social classes growing up as unlikely friends during the Maoist Civil War of the 2000s, and their attempt to recapture a lost chicken who matters more than you'd think. The film has been well-received, especially for its visuals.

KYRGYZSTAN is another of those countries that keeps sending good films but has no Oscar nominations to show for it. "A Father's Will" is one of the most obscure films on the list, though it sounds great. A twist on the tale of the prodigal son, "A Father's Will" concerns Azat, who returns to Kyrgyzstan to a not-so-warm welcome after fifteen years living in the United States. It turns out Azat's father (who died in America) borrowed money for the journey to America but never sent any back, and that he also caused his other son (Azat's brother) to be imprisoned before leaving. There's not a single review anywhere online, but if one goes solely by quality, the Kyrgyz have never once sent a bad movie in this category.

2. SOUTH KOREA- "Age of Shadows"
1. SINGAPORE- "Apprentice"

These two Asian economic powers are still waiting for their first Oscar nominations, even though South Korea has one of the world's most dynamic and popular film industries. Sadly, both of them will likely fall short again this year and although the top-ranked films in Asia, I consider both of them dark horses at best.

SOUTH KOREA has tried everything from arthouse to period pieces to tearjerkers and is now trying its luck with a slick spy thriller. Shot like a Hollywood spy movie, "Age of Shadows" is an exciting movie set during the Japanese colonial era featuring heroic Korean characters defeating villainous Japanese ones. Nationalist overtones aside, this style of film makes for great box-office and the film has gotten good reviews, but ultimately may prove too confusing and too "Korean" to break out here. Korea has failed to be nominated for better films. As for SINGAPORE, it's true nobody is talking about death penalty drama "Apprentice". But this film, which premiered at Cannes 2016, has the potential break out. The story concerns a young Malay Singaporean prison guard on death row who comes under the tutelage of the prison's elderly longtime executioner. Without giving too much way, it eventually transpires that the executioner killed the young guard's father leading to numerous questions about secret intentions. The film has universally strong reviews and though I don't think it will make it, it could surprise.

And here are the statistics:

Number of countries from these regions who have participated in the past: 23

Number of countries participating this year:  19, if you include AFGHANISTAN who were disqualified.

Number of debuts: Zero.

Number of countries opting out:  Only four....Bhutan, Mongolia, Sri Lanka and Tajikistan haven't submitted in years....The last film from any of these countries was "The Road from Elephant Pass" in 2009. 

Already Seen: TWO. "Hang In There Kids!" from TAIWAN and "Port of Call" from HONG KONG. 

Film I'm most looking forward to seeing
: KYRGYZSTAN's "A Father's Will" 

Feature Debuts:  SEVEN of the 19 films are feature debuts: Min Bahadur Bham (Nepal), Kanittha Kwanyu (Thailand), Bakyt Mukul and Dastan Zhapar Uulu (Kyrgyzstan),  Tunku Mona Riza (Malaysia), Narymbetov Satybaldy (Kazakhstan) and Ian White (an Australian representing Cambodia) plus the disqualified Navid Mahmoudi (Afghanistan)

Number of Female Directors THREE. Kanittha Kwanyu (Thailand), Laha Mebow (Taiwan) and Tunku Mona Riza (Malaysia). Kwanyu and Riza are the first women ever to represent their countries here. 

Oldest and Youngest Directors: 85-year old Yoji Yamada from Japan and (probably) 31-year old Angga Dwimas Sasongko from Indoensia. 

Number of Foreign Languages Represented:  Two films are mostly in Mandarin (China and Taiwan) and Malay (Malaysia and Singapore). The other fourteen are in Bengali, Cantonese, Indonesian, Japanese, Kazakh, Khmer, Korean, Kyrgyz, Nepali, Tagalog, Tamil, Thai, Urdu and Vietnamese, plus the disqualified Afghan film in Persian. 

Actually, the films from Cambodia (French and English), Kazakhstan (Russian) and Taiwan (Atayal) are multi-lingual.

Number of Animated Films and Documentaries:  Zero

Number of comedies: Zero

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist:  Um, how about one? 

Highest profile film:  This is a pretty low-profile group of films! But it's probably "Ma' Rosa" (Philippines) on the film festival circuit and "Age of Shadows" (South Korea) in the international box-office. 

Oscar History: Yoji Yamada has represented Japan five times (tying Akira Kurosawa's record) and was nominated once for "The Twilight Samurai". None of the other directors has been submitted before, unless you count Boo Junfeng whose short film was included in Singapore's omnibus entry "7 Letters", last year. 

Best and Worst Decisions:  Good moves from India (which chose a respected, quality film), Pakistan (which almost decided not to submit a film at all), Singapore, Vietnam, Nepal and Kyrgyzstan. 

Once again, Japan and China don't seem to have a handle on what sort of film will do well here....perhaps they don't care. 

Controversies and Changes:  Not much. Some eyebrows were raised when dark comedy "I Am Not Madame Bovary" from China had its release postponed so that it was no longer eligible. It appeared this story of Chinese corruption may have had difficulty with the censors. Afghanistan's disqualification (or whatever happened there) is the biggest controversy from Asia. Even India's selection usually contentious process proceeded quietly. 

Most Notable Omissions:  I was hoping to see "After the Storm" by one of my favorite directors (Hirokazu Koreeda) represent Japan, but the most glaring absence from the list is "The Handmaiden" from South Korea. I was surprised to see "Diamond Island" (Cambodia) left off the list but it may not have premiered at home. And some had hoped that Lav Diaz's two incredibly long shortlisted films, "A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery" (8 hours) and "The Woman Who Left" (4 hours), would represent the Philippines but I think the whole Academy is grateful they weren't. 

Familiar Faces:  The most famous for international audiences is probably Byung-hun Lee, the new Korean "Terminator" who co-stars in "Age of Shadows or Japan's Tadanobu Asano (the "Thor" films, as well as a long resume of infinitely superior, edgy Japanese films) who co-stars in "Nagasaki: Memories of My Son".

Also in the mix this year: pop star/movie star Aaron Kwok stars in "Port of Call", Winston Chao ("The Wedding Banquet") as a King in "Xuan Zang", and the Japanese Meryl Streep, Sayuri Yoshinaga and Kazunari Ninomiya ("Letters From Iwo Jima" co-star with Asano in "Nagasaki: Memories of My Son" 

Last year's race:   All 19 of these countries sent films last year except Indonesia. They failed to get a single spot on the shortlist (and they probably won't this year either). 

I managed to see 10 of them . My favorite was Singapore's "7 Letters" (A-), though I also would also highly recommend the films from Thailand ("How to Win At Checkers", A-), Japan ("100 Yen Love", B+) and China's weird "Go Away Mr. Tumor" (B+), which is kind of a mess of a movie, but ultimately very satisfying. "Court" (India), "Moor" (Pakistan), and "The Throne" (South Korea) were pleasant, average but flawed films. "Talakjung vs. Tulke" (Nepal) definitely had a hard-working cast and crew but was ultimately out of its league in this competition. "The Assassin" (Taiwan) (D) was a visual delight but a disaster in every other respect, especially the screenplay. And "To the Fore" (Hong Kong) is like a bad 80s drama and was ultimately one of the worst films I saw last year. 

Hoping to see "Men Who Saved the World" and "Heavenly Nomadic" before the end of 2016. 


Spartak said...

Great to see that you keep posting.

Bangladesh - I haven't seen "The Unnamed", but I'd to react "production values". Actually, I thought the same before I've seen "Third Person Singular Number" (their submission 6 years ago). Though the film itself was quite mediocre its cinematography was one of the best in its competitive year. Just saying... :)

Thailand - An average film about children film.

Indonesia - Better than average Indonesian submission, but you're right one have to know Indonesian history to enjoy the film fully (I don't).

China - I can't say that it put me to sleep, but it has few ridiculous scenes like a horse carrying the monk through the desert to save his life... Though it's indeed was beautiful.

Hong-Kong - I also watched it a few days ago and got confused with the story-line and I'd be honest I also stopped caring.

Philippines - Usually, I'm not a fan of over-realistic shoulder cinematography (except Dardden's) and have zero sympathy to drug dealers (no matter how many children do they have), though Jaclyn Rose is great.

Japan - There were times, when Japanese submission were in my top list, but it last 3 years (including "Nagasaki") their submissions hardly make sense.

India - It tries to hard to bring police injustice topic (at least in Western eyes), its violence scenes are not violent enough to shock, but also too violent to drive off some of the audience. The 2nd problem is editing, which's a bit confusing in 2nd part of the film. The cross-editing is divided into 2 stories: the characters cleaning a police station and interrogation of a different character. While it seems that the cleaning part lasts few hours, the interrogation part seems to last few days.

Vietnam - It's a mostly brother-brother relationship film and their 1st love, but its additional side stories are over-dramatic.

Singapore - It's a very professional film, I'd say it's even too professional.

South Korea - "Handmaiden" is one of the best films of year (right now, it's on my 2nd spot, a bit behind "Aquarius"), but I can't see the Academy voting for such an erotic film.

"Go away..." was of the most pleasant surprises from last year's competition. Where have you seen "7 Letters", I wish I could watch it, but it was only released as special DVD box set, which cost almost a fortune.

dzong2 said...

Hi Spartak:

So, I think the only think that did not surprise me about yesterday's list of finalists was that there were no films from the nations of Asia.

I randomly saw "7 Letters" on a Singapore Airlines flight when flying from Korea to Australia via Singapore. They have a whole section of films on their in-flight entertainment to promote local cinema, which I think is a great move.