And here are my predictions from the 23 countries from Asia. 19 of these countries submitted films last year. Bhutan (1999), Mongolia (2005), Sri Lanka (2009) and Tajikistan (2005) haven't sent films in years.
1. AFGHANISTAN- “Wolf and Sheep” Afghanistan is one of those countries that keeps sending great movies year after year without luck. “Parting” was one of the best films submitted last year (albeit a weak year) but AMPAS mysteriously disqualified it without announcing a reason. Was it because of nationality (the film was an Iranian co-production) or was it not properly released in Afghanistan? Who can say? The year before, “Utopia” was disqualified for having too much English. This year, I predict they will send either “Lina”, a movie about a young woman who goes in search of her biological father after learning from a blood test that her parents are not her real parents, or “Wolf and Sheep”, about life in a pastoral village in central Afghanistan. I give the edge to “Wolf and Sheep” whose 27-year old female director won Director’s Fortnight at Cannes in 2016, and who made the film in Afghanistan with an international crew. Siddiq Barmak (the Golden Globe-winning director of “Osama”) is currently in production on a new movie called “The Pass” in Georgia.
2. BANGLADESH- “Rina Brown”- There seems to be an unfortunate trend in Asia whereby the highest-profile films of the year are being banned. In February, Bangladesh joined Bhutan and Jordan on the list by banning “No Bed of Roses”, a drama starring Bollywood actor Irrfan Khan. Reasons for the ban are unclear, but it appears to be due to allegations from the widow of acclaimed author/filmmaker Humayun Ahmed (who was also a strong supporter of the current ruling party) that the film is an unauthorized dramatization of her husband’s life. All but one of the Bangladeshi submissions since 2005 have been produced by Impress Telefilms, the dominant national film studio. That bodes well for “Hotath Dekha”, a co-production with India about two characters who meet on a train in 1938 Bengal, and “Rina Brown”, a romance between a Muslim man and a Christian girl on the eve of the war for independence. Films about the 1971 war are always popular subjects for Bangladeshi cinema. If selected, “Rina Brown” would be the first female-helmed film to represent the country. However, most Bangladeshi films that have received buzz abroad have been made outside the Impress studio system, including two decidedly arthouse entries- “Live from Dhaka” (Singapore) and Abu Sayeed’s crowd-funded “Death of a Poet”- as well as “Gopon: The Inner Sound”, which won Best Foreign Film at the Delhi Film Festival. Other Bangladeshi movies about the war for independence this year include “Bhuban Majhi” and “Lal Sobujer Sur”, which could be selected. My prediction: “Rina Brown” ends up being one of the more obscure entries on this year's Oscar longlist, with war drama “Bhuban Majhi” in second, dramedy “Hotath Dekha” in third, and arthouse “Gopon” in fourth.
3. BHUTAN- “Honey Giver Among the Dogs” Bhutan submitted a film just once in 1999, for Khynetse Norbu’s delightful “The Cup”. According to the national newspaper/news agency Kuensel, the producers of Norbu’s latest film- “Hema Herma: Sing Me A Song While I Wait” were preparing to submit their film- when the film (which has delighted audiences in Locarno, Toronto and Busan) was unexpectedly banned. Bhutan, best known for its mountain scenery and “gross national happiness” policy is not known for censorship. However, the Bhutan InfoComm and Media Authority (BICMA) refused to budge, meaning the film cannot be screened in Bhutan and thus cannot compete for an Oscar. The reasons are vague, but it appears the cultural authorities objected to the way Bhutanese masks were used in the film, in fictional, non-traditional ceremonies. This is a pity for Bhutanese filmmakers and a shameful act of censorship. But all is not lost. Bhutan actually had two well-reviewed films at Busan, so I’m hopeful they’ll send film-noir mystery “Honeygiver Among the Dogs” this year until “Hema Hema” can work out its issues with the government. But they probably won’t send anything. “Honeygiver” is about a policeman searching for two missing people- a monk and a local femme fatale. “Serga Mathang”, which won Best Picture at the National Film Awards, won’t figure into the decision-making.
4. CAMBODIA- “Diamond Island” Most of Cambodia’s film and television industry were executed or exiled during the Khmer Rouge genocide of the 1970s, but the country has submitted films four of the past five years, and netted an unexpected Oscar nomination for Rithy Panh’s documentary “The Missing Picture”. I used to struggle to find even one eligible Cambodian film, but this year’s Cambodia International Film Festival (CIFF) featured six new movies. This year’s nominee is almost certain to be “Diamond Island”, which screened at Cannes Critics Week 2016 before opening in Cambodian cinemas in October. It’s a familiar story- boy from the countryside moves to the big city to find work and falls in love with a local girl- but it’s all supposedly done very well. The main competition comes from Oscar nominee Panh, who has another Khmer Rouge documentary out this year- the French-language “Exile”. However, it’s so abstract and cerebral that I think the Cambodian Academy will give 33-year old Davy Chou a chance. The other four Cambodian premieres at the CIFF included a psychological thriller, a popular martial arts action film, a horror film and an LGBT-themed chase comedy.
5. CHINA- “The Chinese Widow” Director Feng Xiaogang has been selected by Chinese officialdom to represent the country twice. He is one of China’s biggest box-office draws and his “I Am Not Madame Bovary” has been the front-runner all year, ever since its domestic release date was postponed from September to November 2016, changing the year it was eligible. It won Best Picture at the Asian Film Awards and at the China Film Directors Awards and was nominated at the Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan. “Madame Bovary” is a comedy/satire about a woman who is double-crossed by her ex-husband after the two plan a fake divorce to get around government land regulations. Will China feel comfortable nominating a film with a heroine who is trying to cheat the government? Probably not, but they did approve it for release. China is usually the last major country to announce their Oscar pick, and they often make strange decisions. In the past three years, they've selected movies out of left field, that few people had heard of, and which hadn’t won any awards of note. For that reason, I’m wondering if “Madame Bovary” could get bumped by nationalist war drama “The Chinese Widow”, directed by Danish Oscar winner Bille August and starring Emile Hirsch as a downed American pilot who is cared for by a benevolent Chinese family during WWII. Although the film isn’t supposed to be very good, this sounds much more like China’s cup of tea. "The Chinese Widow" opened the Shanghai Film Festival and China has a tradition of sending films to the Oscars with Hollywood stars (Adrien Brody and Tim Robbins in “Back to 1942”, Christian Bale in “Flowers of War”). Feng Xiaogang also has a new movie premiering in October (“Youth”) that could arrange an early release. Three other Chinese films deserve a mention here: “Summer is Gone” is this year’s arthouse frontrunner. It beat out “Madame Bovary” for Best Picture at the Golden Horse Awards, and is an intimate B&W tale of a Chinese family living in Inner Mongolia. “Lady in the Portrait” is this year’s costume drama frontrunner, starring Fan Bingbing (who also plays (not) Madame Bovary) as a 16th century Empress who commissions a portrait by a French artist. “Wasted Times” is a lush, period crime epic, co-starring Zhang Ziyi and Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano. All of these films (except the brand-new “Widow”) competed at the China Film Director Awards, and appear to have the approval of the Chinese government. Less likely: China’s festival films have either gotten mixed reviews (“Free and Easy” from Sundance, “Crosscurrent” from Berlin) or deal with controversial issues (“Walking Past the Future” from Cannes and “Mr. No Problem” from Tokyo). Only “Knife in the Clear Water” (Rotterdam) would seem to stand a chance. Dark horses: a couple of Mainland pictures with Hong Kong directors- girl power romantic drama “Soul Mate” probably has a better chance to represent Hong Kong than China, while hit action film “Operation Mekong” isn’t acclaimed enough. In the end, I’m disappointed to say that I’m predicting “Chinese Widow” will beat out the superior “Madame Bovary”, but I'm hoping that I’m wrong. Rounding out the Top Seven from the world’s largest nation: (in order) “Wasted Times”, “Summer is Gone”, “Lady in the Portrait”, “Youth” and “Knife in the Clear Water”. Or maybe something nobody has ever heard of.
6. HONG KONG- “Our Time Will Come” Hong Kong is confusing because many of the territory's top directors are now working on the Mainland, with its mega-market of 1.2 billion cinemagoers. At the same time there are a growing number of people wary of Mainland influence and urging the protection of Hong Kong’s distinct culture and Cantonese language. The obvious Oscar front-runner is “Our Time Will Come”, a large scale historical drama directed by Ann Hui, who has represented Hong Kong four times. It’s about how local Hong Kongers and Chinese guerillas fought the Japanese together during World War II. It’s gotten decent reviews, but Hong Kong’s artistic community may be reluctant to select a film that was released to celebrate twenty years since the unification of China and Hong Kong (it depends who’s on the selection committee!) Still, for now that’s the front-runner. Two small-scale dramas (of the sort selected in 2010 and 2011) also have a chance, namely Cantonese-language “Mad World” (winner of two acting awards at the Hong Kong Film Awards), about a man struggling with mental illness, and Mandarin-language “Soul Mate” (nominated for Best Director at Asian Film Awards and Best Picture at the HK Film Awards), an emotional girl-power romantic drama about two best friends in love with the same man. They haven’t chosen a big martial arts movie in years (2006 and 2008), but these visually impressive films may impress members of the tech branches. Of these, the ones with the best chance are Gordon Chan’s “God of War”, about local Chinese fending off Japanese pirates in the 16th century, and the upcoming Tsui Hark-produced “Thousand Faces of Dunjia”, a wuxia film about the formation of secret society. It’s set to bow October 1st, but Hong Kong frequently arranges an Oscar-qualifying release to promote new films. They could also do the same for “Find Your Voice”, a new Andy Lau movie about a grouchy choir (Oscar loves choirs!) that is currently without a release date. I’m predicting “Our Time Will Come”, but I’m not confident. The rest of the top five: “Mad World”, “Thousand Faces of Dunjia”, “Soul Mate” and “Find Your Voice”.
7. INDIA- TBD
8. INDONESIA- “Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts” Indonesia rarely makes movies that make it to the Cannes Film Festival, so “Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts”, an exciting feminist revenge thriller with shades of “Kill Bill”, is currently the front-runner to represent Indonesia. One big problem- the film has no domestic release date. Another potential problem- the Indonesian Academy usually sends stuffy historical dramas rather than edgy and exciting fare like "Marlina". But the film has gotten enthusiastic reviews, and I’m hopeful she’ll make it to the longlist. Overall, Indonesia is seeing a film resurgence, even though they’ve never yet seriously contended for an Oscar. I’m going to predict “Marlina” gets an Oscar-qualifying release this "island western" about a kick-ass widow who takes revenge on the men who have wronged her. Other possibilities include a trio of historical dramas (“Kartini”, “Solo, Solitude” and “A Woman From Java”) and two melodramas (“Salawaku” and “A Letter to God”). If “Marlina” doesn’t get released, I think Indonesia will select “Kartini”, about a feminist hero who defied the traditions of her high-born family to fight for women’s rights in early 20th century Indonesia. Director Bramantyo was selected in 2014 and the film co-stars Indonesia's most acclaimed actress- Christine Hakim- as Kartini’s mother. In third place: “A Letter to God”, about two street children whose fates diverge when the girl is suddenly adopted by a foreign family. She then searches for her best friend a decade later. Garin Nugroho , one of Indonesia’s most senior directors, hasn’t been selected since 1998 but his “A Woman From Java”, about the Indonesian concubine of an elderly Dutch merchant in the colonial era, will come fourth and road movie “Salawaku”, which got a Best Pic nominee at last year’s national Citra Awards, will probably come fifth.
9. JAPAN- “Harmonium” I lived in Japan five years but I’ve never once predicted them correctly. Their choices tend to be extremely random. I’ve managed to see seventeen out of eighteen submissions since 1999 and they’ve sent some brilliant films (the best was “Confessions”) as well as some real losers (last year’s “Nagasaki: Memories of My Son”) that nobody inside or outside Japan seemed to like. So it’s best not to spend too much time trying to understand. This year, I predict they’ll send “Harmonium”, a dark drama about a man who hires his friend who has just been released from prison. The “friend” (played by Japanese superstar Tadanobu Asano) begins to insinuate himself into the lives of the man’s family. It won the 2016 Jury Prize in Cannes “Un Certain Regard”, and was the only Japanese film to be nominated for Best Picture at the 2017 Asian Film Awards. It has good reviews and starpower and has the same dark tone of their 2010 and 2014 submissions. Not far behind is Hirokazu Koreeda’s “The Third Murder”, which opens in September. Koreeda is a brilliant director who works outside the studio system. He’s frequently passed over for great work ("Like Father, Like Son" etc.) but he was selected by the Japanese Academy once. Told from three perspectives, “The Third Murder” is about a murderer, a lawyer and the family of a murder victim. Three strong dark horses are (1)- “The Old Capital”, a family drama about a traditional family whose business has hundreds of years of roots to the city of Kyoto, but which is having trouble adjusting to the modern world; (2)- “Oh Lucy!”, a quirky low-key comedy that was called a “hidden gem” at Cannes, stars Shinobu Terajima and Josh Hartnett as a bored office lady and her English teacher. (It’s produced by Will Ferrell!) and (3) “In this Corner of the World”, a gorgeous animated film about Hiroshima in the years leading up to World War II, which won Best Animated Film (a very competitive category in Japan!) at the Japanese Academy Awards this year. I wouldn’t be surprised if any of these five were selected. Cancer comedy “Her Loves Boils Bathwater” and samurai movies “Tatara Samurai” and ultra-violent “Blade of the Immortal” have all gotten great reviews….but none of them seem serious enough to be the Japanese candidate. And the high-profile “Radiance” from Naomi Kawase has gotten mostly mixed reviews. I still say “Harmonium” gets this, with “Third Murder” and “Oh Lucy!” the most likely spoilers.
10. KAZAKHSTAN- “Returnee” Kazakh films do well at international film festivals, though these arthouse films don’t always get released at home. Kazakhstan doesn’t have any obvious contenders this year. Their most acclaimed film (“Road to Mother”) was released on September 29th, 2016 meaning it was eligible for last year. I predict the Kazakhs send “The Returnee”, a drama about the oralman, ethnic Kazakhs from other countries (mostly China and Mongolia) who are invited by the Kazakh government to resettle in Kazakhstan. Although they are “Kazakhs” ethnically, these immigrants often have a difficult time adjusting to the more liberal and secular, Russified culture of Kazakhstan. It was the only Kazakh fiction feature at the Eurasian Film Festival (Kazakhstan’s largest) and it won Best Asian Film at the Fajr Film Festival in Iran. In second place is “Districts” (Rayony), a well-received crime drama by Akan Satayev, who has represented Kazakhstan twice before. A third option would be “The Plague at the Karatas Village”, an arty drama about a new mayor confronted with a strange village plague. It earned Kazakhstan a prestigious nomination for “Best Film From the CIS Countries” at the 2017 Russian Nika Awards. Less likely: taxi driver drama “4+1” (Busan 2016) and 3-hour biopic “Aktoty”.
11. KOREA- “Warriors of the Dawn” South Korea is the world’s greatest filmmaking nation that has never been nominated for an Oscar. They’ve tried everything- arthouse/festival darlings, big-budget war movies, big-budget costume dramas, mainstream box-office hits, comedies, dramas and action movies- but nothing works. This year, they’ve got a lot of contenders (including five by previously submitted directors, four that premiered at Cannes and two that premiered in Berlin), with no obvious frontrunner. The highest-profile Korean film of the year is “Okja”, starring Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal and a flatulent, giant animated pig. It premiered at Cannes and is being called this year’s “E.T.” However because it may have premiered online and also has a lot of English, I don't think it will be considered. From Korea’s arthouse branch we have “Bacchus Lady” (Berlin 2016), “On the Beach At Night Alone” (Best Actress; Berlin 2017) and “The Day After” (Cannes 2017). The Koreans love their anti-Japanese history movies (e.g. “Anarchist From Colony”, “Snowy Road” and “Battleship Island”, all set in the colonial era, as well as “Warriors of the Dawn” set in the 16th century), but they also sent one last year. And although they rarely send them to the Oscars, they have a number of crime dramas that could compete here like “The Merciless” (Cannes), box-office hit “New Trial”, corruption drama “Ordinary Person” (Moscow) and this summer’s upcoming “VIP”. And it’s never wise to count out (1)- Song Kang-ho, who has starred in the Korean submissions the past two years and who stars in “Taxi Driver”, about a man driving a German journalist around during one of Korea’s most politically turbulent times, or (2)- Kim Ki-duk who should have two Oscar noms already for “Spring Summer Fall Winter Spring” and the disturbing “Pieta”. Kim has a new movie- “The Net”- about a North Korean fisherman who accidentally drifts into South Korean waters. It’s gotten good reviews, though they say it’s not his best film. Ultimately, I think it will depend whether Korea wants to go large or small; set in 1592, “Warriors of the Dawn” is a splashy historical drama about mercenaries fighting against the Japanese with great battle scenes and high production values. It couldn’t be more different than “Bacchus Lady”, a comparatively low-budget film about the surprising Korean phenomena of elder prostitution, that has quietly gained strong notices since its Cannes debut over a year ago. I'll pick “Warriors” since Korea has tended to go glossy the last few years and "Bacchus is a bit disturbing. Rounding out the Top Five: Kim Ki-duk’s “The Net” , big-budget prison break drama “Battleship Island” and noirish police drama “Ordinary Person”. I wouldn’t count out festival films “The Day After” or “On the Beach At Night Alone” either, but reviews have been more mixed.
12. KYRGYZSTAN- “Centaur” Kyrgyzstan takes on the story of Don Quixote in "Centaur", a village drama about a man living with his wife and handicapped son, who secretly frees racehorses in the middle of the night. Director Aktan Arym Kubat (formerly known professionally as Aktan Abdykalykov) is the country’s best-known director and his films have represented the country three times. Combine that with the fact the film won two awards in Berlin and was the country’s representative at Karlovy Vary, and “Centaur” looks like a shoo-in. Dark horse: “Finding Mother” has also gotten good notices (and some US screenings) for its story of a Kyrgyz orphan who goes to the United States to find his long-lost mother.
13. MALAYSIA- “Interchange” Malaysia’s first-ever Oscar submission was a Malay-language fantasy film by ethnic Chinese director Teong Hin Saw. This year, most everyone would agree that Malaysia’s best film of the year is “You Mean the World to Me”, a semi-autobiographical drama about Saw’s difficult relationship with his mother. It has an all-star regional cast and is lensed by Wong Kar-wai cinematographer Christopher Doyle. In any other country, this critically-acclaimed family drama would be automatically be the country’s Oscar submission. But the film is about an ethnic Chinese family, and Malaysia has a system of pervasive legal and cultural discrimination against its Chinese and Indian ethnic minorities. I’d say it’s extremely unlikely they would select a Chinese-language film to represent the country, no matter how good it is (In 2014, Malaysia sent nothing, rather than send “The Journey”). However, things may be changing. Last year, a number of prominent Malay filmmakers threatened to boycott the Malaysian Film Festival in protest of the rule that only Malay-language films could compete in the main awards (Malaysian Chinese and Indian films would be relegated to a sort of Best Foreign Language Film category). Due to the controversy, the festival was forced to change the rules, and a Tamil-language film won. So, I hope I'm wrong. For now though, I still think the Malaysian Academy will seek to send a Malay film….Problem is, they don’t have much to choose from this year. One option is “Interchange” (Toronto 2016), a weird fantasy-mystery about a forensics photographer trying to solve a supernatural murder. Director Dain Said directed Malaysia’s second Oscar submission (“Bunohan”). Other possibilities: social dramas “Adiwiraku”, about a rural school and “Hijabsta Ballet”, about a young ballerina who insists on wearing a hijab when she dances. I’m definitely rooting for “You Mean the World to Me”, but ethnic prejudice means I’m going to predict “Interchange”, even though it hasn’t gotten great reviews. But then, most Malaysian films sent to the Oscars haven’t either.
14. MONGOLIA- “Children of Genghis” Mongolia hasn’t been on the Oscar list since 2005. Both their previous submissions were directed by Germany-based Byambasuren Davaa who got a Documentary Oscar nomination for “The Story of the Weeping Camel” after failing the make the shortlist for Foreign Film the year before. Davaa said in a 2017 interview that she is working on “several projects” but nothing is ready to start filming. She also mentioned that her next film may be a fiction film. The Mongolians began a new national film Awards this year, so perhaps that will inspire them to rejoin the Oscar race. This year, the two front-runners are “Faith”, a moral dilemma drama about the pervasiveness of corruption in Mongolia which won Best Picture at the new awards, and “Children of Genghis”, a US co-production which appears to be a sort of docudrama about Mongolian children learning the ancient sport of horse racing. I give the edge to “Genghis”.
15. NEPAL- “White Sun” Few countries this year have an easier decision than the Himalayan nation of Nepal, which is certain to submit “White Sun”, which has played at a dozen festivals since its premiere in Venice last August. It won the Interfilm Award there, as well as prizes at Palm Springs (Grand Jury Prize) and Singapore (Best Asian Film). This film, about a political activist burying his father amidst ancient traditions, family pressures, caste differences and the challenges of living under the new, post-war republican government, is said to be one of the best films ever made by a Nepali director. The Hollywood Reporter specifically noted in its review that the film could “go a fair distance” in the Foreign Language category. It’s a lock.
16. PAKISTAN- “Rahm” Pakistan is my home country until September 2nd, and I’ve had a wonderful year here. Unfortunately, although national cinema has really been improving, many Pakistanis still snobbishly say they won’t go and see local films. While here, I’ve tried to encourage people to support their local cinema industry. I see five possibilities this year: (1)- “Abdullah: The Final Witness”, a film based on a true story about an innocent truck driver convicted of the murder of several foreign citizens in Balochistan province. It was set to premiere in 2015 but was banned by the Pakistani censors until Fall 2016; (2)- “Gardaab”, a gritty thriller very loosely based on Romeo & Juliet, set amidst the slums of Karachi, (3)- “Rahm”, also based on a Shakespeare play (the less well-known “Measure for Measure”), about a woman trying to save her innocent brother from being executed by a fanatical, religious governor, (4)- “Salute”, based on the true story of a teenaged boy who died saving his school from a suicide bomber and (5)- the long-delayed “Saya-e-Khuda-e-Zuljalal” (aka “SKZ”…I predicted it two or three years ago), a nationalist action film about Pakistan's worsening relations with India between Pakistani independence in 1947 and the Indo-Pakistan War of 1965. Less likely: two-time Oscar winner Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy’s new animated film “3 Bahadur”, or upcoming revenge thriller “Wujood". In the past four years since Pakistan returned to the Oscar race (after a 50-year absence), Pakistan has selected one “indie” movie, and three arty but mainstream dramas. For that reason, I’m predicting a surprise nod for the relatively obscure “Rahm”, which has arguably gotten the strongest reviews and which is not controversial like “Abdullah” or “Salute”. I’ll rank the other Shakespearean adaptation- “Gardaab” – in second place with "SKZ" a strong third.
17. PHILIPPINES- “Pedicab” I honestly don’t have a clue what the Philippines will send to the Oscars this year. They have a couple dozen mostly well-received films that have won awards at the country’s numerous awards shows and film festivals. Virtually none of them have been screened at any major film festivals (except “Pedicab”), and almost none of them have been reviewed by international critics. To make things more complicated, they have nine new films premiering at the Cinemalaya Film Festival in August, which often supplies many of their Oscar submissions. So, I'm definitely going to get this one wrong. I vaguely see the ten leading candidates (in alphabetical order) as “Apocalypse Child”, “Baconaua”, “Die Beautiful”, “Mercury is Mine”, “Mrs.”, “Patay na si Jesus”, “Pedicab”, “Right to Kill”, “The Sun Behind You” and “Women of the Weeping River”….but none of them seems especially likely. My prediction is “Pedicab”, but only because it won Best Picture at the Shanghai Film Festival. It’s a black comedy about a poor family moving from the slums of Manila, back to their home village. Reviews have been good but not great. My runner-ups: “Apocalypse Child”, about a youth in a surfing town who believes he was conceived during the filming of “Apocalypse Now”, “Women of the Weeping River”, a drama about a blood feud in a Muslim village which dominated the Gawan Urian Awards and “Die Beautiful”, by the director of “Bwakaw”, a surprisingly heartwarming comedy about a family trying to honor a transgender woman’s last wish to appear dressed as a different celebrity each night of her wake. The Philippines is the most confusing country in the world this year.
18. SINGAPORE- “A Yellow Bird” Tiny Singapore has submitted films six years in a row now, and appears to have become a regular participant in thi category. Although most of their films are made in Chinese or English, this year's two main contenders are in minority languages. The front-runner has got to be “A Yellow Bird”, which premiered in the International Critics Week section of the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. That’s a big deal for Singapore. The multilingual film is mostly in Tamil and focuses on an Indian Singaporean whose family rejects him after he is released from prison. Singapore likes to highlight its multicultural society and has never selected a director from the minority Indian community (although director Rajagopal was one of the short film directors who made the entertaining omnibus “7 Letters”). The problem is that “A Yellow Bird” hasn’t gotten very good reviews, with critics applauding the cinema verite style, but also calling the film slow, boring and/or difficult to watch. A fun, alternate choice would be the Thai-language “Pop Aye”, a road movie made in Thailand by Singaporean director Kirsten Tan. It delighted audiences when it premiered in Sundance and it's been getting great reviews around the world. Starring 50-something Thai singer Thaneth Warakulnukroh alongside a scene-stealing elephant, “Pop Aye” is an indie dramedy about a man travelling with his childhood friend (an elephant) on a road trip back to his hometown. I’m rooting for “Pop Aye”, but I think the more “authentically Singaporean” “Yellow Bird” will be Singapore’s submission.
19. SRI LANKA- “Aloko Udapadi” Sri Lanka hasn’t sent a movie since 2009, despite a medium-sized film industry that annually produces several dozen films. They’ve only sent two films before- first an arthouse costume drama (“Mansion By the Lake”), followed by a more commercial effort (“The Road From Elephant Pass”). Their best movie of the year is said to be “Burning Birds’ (Busan, Tokyo, Rotterdam etc.), about a widow forced to care for a family of nine after her husband is abducted and killed by a paramilitary group. The director’s first film “Flying Fish” was banned in Sri Lanka by the previous government in 2011. There’s a more liberal regime in place now, but the film still hasn’t secured a local release. So, if the Sri Lankans do elect to send a movie, it will probably be big-budget historical drama “Aloko Udapadi”, set in 89BC in an ancient kingdom replete with palace intrigue, or the arthouse “Dirty Yellow Darkness” about a man with mental illness struggling to win back his wife. This really should be “Burning Birds”, but I’ll guess “Aloko Udapadi”.
20. TAIWAN- “The Road to Mandalay” Taiwan has a wide open race, with every possible genre in contention to represent the island- comedy (“Village of No Return”), theatre of the absurd (“The Great Buddha”), straight drama (“Gangster’s Daughter”, “Missing Johnny”), arthouse (“Road to Mandalay”, “White Ant”), road movie (“Godspeed”), thriller (“The Last Painting”), musical (“52Hz, I Love You”), and even an unlikely horror film (“Mon Mon Mon Monsters”). Most of their top contenders were screened at the Taipei Film Festival, where the bizarre B&W “The Great Buddha” was the unexpected winner of both the festival's Grand Prize, and Best Fiction Feature in the Taiwanese film competition. “Road to Mandalay”, about two Burmese migrants living illegally in Thailand, has been the most acclaimed movie of the year from international critics, while “Godspeed” managed an impressive number of nominations (including Best Picture) at the Asian Film Awards and the Golden Horse Film Festival (losing both to films from Mainland China). The directors of black comedy “Godspeed” (about a man dealing drugs by hiring a sleep-deprived taxi driver to take him from one side of the island to the other and back, in 24 hours) and the Burmese-language “Road to Mandalay” have both been selected before. I’m unsure what Taiwan will do. “The Great Buddha” just looks too weird. Wei Te-sheng got Taiwan to the shortlist for “Seediq Bale” but his latest- “52Hz”- didn’t get great reviews. Taiwan-based Burmese director Midi Z. was selected in 2014, and selecting a non-Taiwanese twice in four years might be perceived negatively. It’s a confusing year, but I’m going to predict Midi Z. gets this for “Road to Mandalay”, with murder mystery “The Last Painting” and Taipei winner “Great Buddha” not far behind. Less likely: taxi comedy “Godspeed” and “Missing Johnny”, about a number of characters whose lives intersect in Taipei. That last one won four awards in Taipei. I personally am most looking forward to see quirky comedy “Village of No Return”, about a con artist who brings a magical machine to a small village that causes people to forget all their bad memories, worries and responsibilities.
21. TAJIKISTAN- “Monkey’s Dream” Tajikistan hasn’t submitted a movie since 2005, but their biennial Didor International Film Festival featured no less than four new films. So, here’s hoping Tajikistan returns to the Oscar race with the Russian-language horror-drama “Monkey’s Dream”, a local retelling of the famous short story “The Monkey’s Paw”, about an Oriental relic that grants its owner three (cursed) wishes. Sadly, Tajikistan's most famous international director, Bakhtyar Khudojnazarov,died in 2015.
22. THAILAND- “By The Time It Gets Dark” Thailand has probably had the weakest film year of the major Asian countries, so they don’t have much to choose from. Most of their film output consists of silly comedies replete with ghosts and drag queens, a huge number of horror films and the odd martial arts action movie. I think that the Thais will send “By The Time It Gets Dark”, a drama that won Best Picture and Best Director at this year’s National Film Awards. Set in the 1970s, it’s about student protests against the Thai military junta, and it’s been praised for its unique, dreamlike style of cinematography. However, since 2014 Thailand has once again been ruled by a military junta, which has been busy putting down protests and clamping down on dissidents, so this film may be a little too close to home. “Bad Genius” isn’t a typical Oscar submission- it’s a youthful heist thriller- but it’s gotten surprisingly good reviews, it has rocked the Thai box office and won Best Picture at the New York Asian Film Festival, so that’s probably their second-best option. Other possibilites: romantic drama “A Gas Station” (Busan) and romantic anthology “The Gift”, featuring music composed by the late King. Less likely: indie drama “Fail Stage” and Burma co-production “From Bangkok to Mandalay”. One potential dark horse: Thailand selected a film by an American director in 2015 so they could send critically acclaimed elephant comedy “Pop Aye” made in Thailand by Singaporean director Kirsten Tan. That would actually be a very smart move.
23. VIETNAM- “Father and Son” Vietnam’s film industry used to be dominated by dull state-sponsored dramas about Vietnamese history, and the occasional arthouse film made by Vietnamese directors based overseas. No longer. Vietnam has a local film industry catering to local tastes, dominated by local romantic comedies and action movies of the type that are popular all over Asia and around the world. 18 movies competed at the national Silver Kite Awards this year, and there wasn’t a Vietnam War movie in sight. The awards were dominated by rom-coms “Saigon, I Love You” and “12 Zodiac”. “Saigon, I Love You”, an omnibus of five romantic stories (including a gay couple, and one foreigner) centered around Ho Chi Minh City, was a local box-office hit and is eligible this year. It’s possible, but I think the Vietnamese Academy will go with something more serious. Vietnam’s “The Way Station”, a heavy drama about a series of characters from all over Vietnam who find themselves in a small seaside village, won the third biannual ASEAN International Film Festival, and was one of three new features introduced at Vietnam’s first-ever Cannes pavilion in May (the others were “Cu Li Never Cries” and “The Third Wife”, which was the recipient of a prestigious grant from Spike Lee's production company). In the end, I think “Saigon” will be too light and the “The Way Station” (with its sexual themes) will be too heavy. And “The Third Wife”, about a 19th century girl forced to marry an older man, probably won’t be released in Vietnam until next year. So my prediction for Vietnam is “Father and Son”, a slice-of-life drama about a poor, widower fisherman raising his son in a small village, when his son suddenly falls ill. It’s serious, non-controversial and pretty.