Thursday, December 7, 2017

Foreign Oscar Predictions- the Submissions from Asia (20 films)


16. LAOS- “Dearest Sister”
17. BANGLADESH- “The Cage”
18. CHINA- “Wolf Warrior 2”
19. INDONESIA- “Turah”
20. TAIWAN- “Small Talk”

Congratulations to Bangladesh, Indonesia and Laos! By entering the Foreign Film race, they have people like me talking about their film industries and watching their movies. However, their goal here is to participate. Films from BANGLADESH usually don't have the production values necessary to compete at the Oscars. "The Cage" is about the journey of a wealthy Hindu family who decide to leave their home in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1947 during the Partition of India. It's a story that will resonate a lot locally, but less so in the United States. INDONESIA has selected drama "Turah", about the impoverished inhabitants of a small Javanese village. It excels at showing local flavor, but I was bored and found it fairly forgettable. LAOS is making its debut with "Dearest Sister", which is billed as a horror movie (there are indeed ghosts....) but which is more of a tense psychological thriller about tension between a Lao woman losing her eyesight, and  the distant country cousin employed to take care of her. It's a great film, but definitely not one that is likely to appeal to the Foreign Oscar committee. Even the director- Lao-American Mattie Do- says that she doesn't think Laos fully understands the standards of the Oscars.

China and Taiwan really should have done better. TAIWAN's documentary "Small Talk", about the director's relationship with her lesbian mother, is clearly a way of providing catharsis to the poverty and neglect she felt while growing up. It's also terribly boring to watch. As for CHINA, they've inexplicably selected blockbuster action sequel "Wolf Warrior II", about a Chinese action hero helping a community in Africa. Even if Oscar did like big action movies, the nationalistic Chinese slant won't appeal to American voters either. A terrible choice for China. 

11. KAZAKHSTAN- "Road to Mother"
12. VIETNAM- “Father and Son”
13. MONGOLIA- “Children of Genghis”
14. PAKISTAN- “Saawan”
15. AFGHANISTAN- “Letter to the President”

Here we have five of the most obscure entries on the Oscar list, which have no buzz, no visibility and virtually no record at international film festivals (though Afghanistan managed to make it to Locarno and Busan). They've got some Oscar hooks like adorable kids (Mongolia), kids in distress (Kazakhstan, Vietnam and Pakistan), beautiful rural cinematography (all four), and even World War II (Kazakhstan). They're probably not bad films, but with 92 films, it will difficult for any of them to keep their heads above water. AFGHANISTAN selected "Letter to the President", a solid drama about an Afghan woman who has successfully risen to a fairly high-level in the police force. Her relatively happy middle-class life is thrown into turmoil when she becomes involved in the case of a teenaged village bride accused of adultery (she was probably raped), whose community wants her to be released and executed by the village elders. Afghanistan has sent some wonderful feminist dramas over the years ("Patience Stone", "Osama") and this is a good movie but not a great one. KAZAKHSTAN has chosen historical drama "Road to Mother", which packs in so many decades of history and war and Communism, at the expense of character development. This story of a mother desperately seeking to be reunited with a son lost in wartime is said to be well-made but just a bit boring, and perhaps unrelatable for those who don't know 20th century Kazakh history. MONGOLIA returns to the Oscar competition after a twelve-year absence with kids movie "Children of Genghis", about traditional Mongolian horseback riding and the rivalry between two child brothers to represent the community. It has beautiful scenery and cute kids, but probably will be seen too much as a kiddie flick. PAKISTAN has selected "Saawan", their second submission from the violence-plagued Balochistan region. It's a true story about a handicapped child abandoned by his family, and his struggle for justice. An important issue to be sure, but Pakistani melodrama rarely resonates here. Lastly, there's VIETNAM and "Father and Son", a drama set in a fishing village, about a poor man struggling to find the money necessary who treat his ill son. Though it sounds like the most interesting film of the five, it's also too small to survive. 


7. INDIA- “Newton”
8. THAILAND- “By the Time It Gets Dark”
9. HONG KONG- “Mad World”
10. KYRGYZSTAN- "Centaur"

These four films will likely have some supporters though I still don't think they have any chance at an Oscar nomination. HONG KONG’s mental illness drama “Mad World” and KYRGYZSTAN’s village drama “Centaur” have both gotten strong reviews. Everyone says they’re very good movies, but I haven’t heard anyone say they are the best foreign films of the year. Reviewers of “Mad World”, about a man with bipolar disorder struggling to reconcile with his wife, mostly praise the acting performances (especially Eric Tsang). The film (surprisingly) didn’t even manage a Best Picture nomination at this year’s Hong Kong Film Awards. As for Kyrgyzstan, they’ve sent a lot of similarly-themed movies in the past that have probably come close to being nominated (including “Beshkempir” and “Tengri”) but there’s just too much competition this year to hold out hope for “Centaur” (Berlin), about a village horse thief.
THAILAND usually picks commercial films but they’ve smartly gone arthouse this year with “By the Time It Gets Dark”, a film about the massacre of university students protesting the military regime in 1976 (an incident with similar resonance as the Kent State killings in the United States). Some people are predicting this as a dark horse, but I think this film might be a difficult for the Oscars. Most reviewers praise the cinematography above the film itself.
No country seems to stress and soul-search every year more than INDIA who annually proclaim that they “don’t need the validation of the Oscars” while desperately hoping for a nomination. I think India misses the point. Not getting nominated is not a “failure”. In fact, they’ve been quite savvy with their choices the past three years, including this year’s “Newton”, a black comedy about a scrupulously honest election official from the city trying to organize a regional election in a remote area. The problem is that local rebels have threatened to hurt anyone who votes, the area is under military occupation and the villagers have never heard of any of the candidates anyway. It’s a really smart film that will be relatable to Americans, although some of the local context about the Naxalites will be lost. “Newton” starts strong and ends even stronger, but it sags a bit in the middle….I think India will fail to make the cut, but I applaud their selection as one of the smartest in the region. 

4. SINGAPORE- “Pop Aye”
5. SOUTH KOREA- “A Taxi Driver”
6. PHILIPPINES- “Birdshot”

These three films all have a small chance at getting the first-ever nominations for their countries. I had really high hopes for SINGAPORE's "Pop-Aye", a charming road movie about a Thai man and his elephant and had included it as a frontrunner my early predictions. The film was a success at Sundance, and is a clear crowd-pleaser with humor and pathos in equal measure. However, buzz for the film seems to have died out and it might be considered a little lightweight in such a competitive year....Still, it's one I'm holding out hope for. “Birdshot”  from the PHILIPPINES, is about a troubled 14-year old girl who goes on the run through the lush Filipino countryside after accidentally killing an endangered bird, is said to be a refreshing change from the gritty, poorly-lit urban dramas that are usually selected by the Philippines. It’s gotten strong reviews and is directed by the youngest director in the competition. Still, it hasn’t won many awards and is likely too small to get noticed. Last but not least is SOUTH KOREA, which almost always sends great films that get ignored by AMPAS. This year is likely to continue that tradition. "A Taxi Driver" is a really good movie and one that has already gotten a limited U.S. release. Set during the days of the Korean military dictatorship, it's about a German reporter who hires an unwitting politically disinterested Seoul taxi driver to drive him to Gwangju, which is under a military blockade and press black-out. It's a compelling story and one that audiences will understand even if they don't know about the Gwangju Massacre. Films with some English dialogue often score well here. I'd be surprised but pleased if Korea finally managed a surprise nod. 

1. JAPAN- “Her Love Boils Bathwater”
2. CAMBODIA- “First They Killed My Father”
3. NEPAL- “White Sun"

Although Oscar likes films from the Middle East, the countries of East, Central and South Asia are usually shut out of the Oscar race. No films from this region have been shortlisted the past three years. I’m pretty sure the drought will end this year with one of these three films, although I’m not certain which one (if any) will make the cut. Of course, the front-runner on paper is CAMBODIA (oddly enough, the last Asian nation to get a nomination with “The Missing Picture”) and “First They Killed My Father”, the true story of a little girl whose family is killed by the Khmer Rouge. The film has a famous director (Jolie) and a strong campaign from Netflix (who, by the way, have not often been successful with Oscar campaigns). The Khmer Rouge genocide is a stirring topic, and the film has gotten mostly good reviews, except from some of the most arthouse critics….both good signs. It won’t get “saved”, but I have a feeling it will be do well with the large committee. “White Sun” from NEPAL has less buzz, but arguably stronger reviews. Director Deepak Rauniyar’s first film- “Highway”- was wonderful but was made during a year when Nepal had no Oscar committee. “White Sun” delves into complicated social and political issues as a son returns to his village to bury his mother, but somehow remains accessible. It has a rare 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, Variety said it “barely puts a foot wrong” and also got strong notices from the NY Times. Ultimately, it is likely to fail to make the Top Nine but will probably place extremely well.  Which brings us to JAPAN and tearjerker comedy “Her Love Boils Bathwater” which entered the race with zero buzz, just as “Departures” did in 2008 before winning the prize. “Bathwater” is about a Japanese mother who sacrifices everything for her family, and what happens when she suddenly learns she is terminally ill. I’ve been told the film is extremely engaging and pulls the audience in. We may have another “Departures”, though it’s going to be extremely tight. I just got the DVD in the mail, and hope to see it next week. 

Now the statistics:

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

Number of countries participating this year:  20

Number of debuts: 1- LAOS. That leaves Uzbekistan as the only significant film-making country in Asia that has never sent a film.

Number of countries opting out4. Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Tajikistan, who almost never send films, plus Malaysia, which had submitted films the past two years and which I had expected would send school drama “Adiwiraku”, the winner of the 2017 Malaysian Film Festival. Malaysia’s nominating body FINAS, did not respond to journalist inquiries as to why they failed to send a movie this year. The producers of “Hema Hema (Sing Me A Song While I Wait)” were reportedly pushing the Himalayan kingdom of BHUTAN to convene an Oscar nominating committee for the first time since 1999. But when the film was unexpectedly banned, those plans did not come to fruition.

Number I Predicted Correctly: 5. Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Thailand and Vietnam, all of which were pretty easy.....I came really close with Hong Kong, and didn't originally think the films from Cambodia and Kazakhstan was eligible. AfghanistanChina and Indonesia took me completely by surprise. 

Already Seen: I saw the films from AFGHANISTAN, INDIA, INDONESIA, LAOS, SOUTH KOREA and TAIWAN, and I plan to see the films from Cambodia, Japan, Philippines and Singapore before the New Year.

Film I'm most looking forward to seeing
: Asia looks like they’ve sent some wonderful films this year. I’m most excited to see Japan’s tearjerker comedy “Her Love Boils Bathwater” and Singapore’s charming road movie “Pop-Aye”, starring an elephant.

Feature Debuts:   NINE (I think?)-Farhan Alam (Pakistan), Mattie Do (Laos), Luong Dinh Dung (Vietnam), Hui-chen Huang (Taiwan), Akram Khan (Bangladesh), Amit V Masurkar (India), Kirsten Tan (Singapore), Wisnu (Indonesia), Chun Wong (Hong Kong)

Number of Female DirectorsSIX. Mattie Do (Laos), Hui-Chen Huang (Taiwan), Roya Sadat (Afghanistan), Kirsten Tan (Singapore) and Anocha Suwichakornpong (Thailand), plus American actress Angelina Jolie who is representing Cambodia.

Oldest and Youngest Directors: The youngest Asian director this year is Mikhail Red of the Philippines, who is only 24. The oldest director is probably Aktan Arym Kubat, who turned 60 this year.

Number of Foreign Languages Represented: 20 films in 19 different languages! Surprisingly, Thai is the only multiple language this year – two films are in Thai (Thailand + Singapore), while we also have a film in Lao, which is mutually intelligible. We also have three films in Chinese languages (Mandarin, Taiwanese and Cantonese). The other fourteen are in Bangla, Filipino, Hindi, Japanese, Javanese, Kazakh, Khmer, Korean, Kyrgyz, Mongolian, Nepali, Persian, Urdu and Vietnamese.

Number of DocumentariesONE, “Small Talk” from Taiwan.

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: Maybe six? 

Highest profile film:  In the west, it’s definitely Cambodia’s “First They Killed My Father”, Angelina Jolie’s high-profile Netflix entry. However, Asian audiences would certainly say “Wolf Warrior 2”, China’s poorly-reviewed action movie that is one of the biggest global box-office hits ever released outside the United States.

Oscar History: Well, Cambodia’s Angelina Jolie has won two Oscars- one for Best Supporting Actress for “Girl Interrupted” as well as a Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.

Three of this year’s directors have been in the Oscar race before- Kazakhstan’s Akan Satayev (“Strayed” in 2010 and “Myn Bala” in 2012), Kyrgyzstan’s Aktan Arym Kubat (“Beshkempir” in 1998, “The Chimp” in 2001 and “The Light Thief” in 2010) and South Korea’s Jang Hoon (“The Front Line” in 2011). None were nominated.

Only Japan and Taiwan have won the Best Foreign Film award, while Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, India, Kazakhstan, Nepal and Vietnam have been nominated at least once.

Controversies and Changes: None this year, though the selection of “Wolf Warrior 2” did raise some eyebrows.
Most Notable Omissions:    Definitely “I Am Not Madame Bovary”, Feng Xiaogang’s critically acclaimed film about corruption, which probably should have represented China. Also missing: Indie drama “Diamond Island” (Cannes Critics Week) from Cambodia, "Die Beautiful" from the Philippines, “Harmonium” and Hirokazu Koreeda’s “The Third Murder” from Japan.

Familiar Faces:  Some major local stars: Kang-ho SONG (“A Taxi Driver”) is a major star in South Korea and has starred in Korean submissions for the past three years…Rie Miyazawa (“Her Love Boils Bathwater”) and Eric Tsang (“Mad World”) are well-known in Japan and Hong Kong respectively.

Last year's race:   Last year, I saw 8 of the 19 submissions from Asia, and they were a pretty mediocre bunch. The strongest entry was the disqualified “Parting” from Afghanistan (A-), followed by “Apprentice” (B+) from Singapore and “Redha” from Malaysia (B). The others were so forgettable, I barely remember seeing them- “Port of Call” (B), “The Unnamed” (B-), “Hang In There Kids” (C+), “Xuan Zang” (C) and the embarrassingly bad “Nagasaki: Memories of My Son” (D) from Japan, usually one of my favorite Oscar countries.

1 comment:

Spartak said...

No Chance in Hell- I would be honest that I begin to get annoyed with the larger amount of submissions not just without a real chance, but also of a mediocre quality. I don't know how the Academy should prevent such a submissions, but something has to be done because after all, it harms small films of a better quality that get lost in such amount of submission.

Bangladesh - Usually, Bangladesh submission's are far from to be the worst in the circle, though they neither good enough to be shortlisted. I haven't seen "The Cage", but the ones I did watch from the previous years are not so bad. I think I have already mentioned it ones that "Third Person Singular Number" (the Bengali submission from 7 years ago) had one of the best camera works in the competition (though most of the other elements were left much to be desired).

China - Probably the most ridiculous choice of the year.

Indonesia - Where have you seen it?

Hong-Kong - Indeed quite a strong film.

Kyrgystan - A very beautiful and smart film that touches many topics including freedom, nature, and relation to art in closed society. I know that it has almost zero chances, but I still hold my fingers crossed for "Centaur".

India - I would consider it as a dark horse with much better chances than those you have put in this category.

Singapore - Featuring a funny animal is not enough. Though it does have few touching moments, personally, I have found the main character very unsympathetic and a few points unrealistic, while the non-linear editing is not working good enough.

South Korea - Didn't like, mostly I didn't find the main character behavior reliable, it seemed to cinematic and lead to straight-forward change. Also, for those, who aren't familiar with Korean history and the events shown in the film is hard to follow.

Cambodia - It might do well because it pulls every possible string... Was too much for me.

Nepal - Though it seems that the film applies much more to the domestic audience, it manages to touch and moreover it's a hopeful film, which sometimes is a very important point for Oscar campaign.

Japan - One of the huge disappointments for me during this season. Less smart and cinematic than "Departures" and much more melodramatic.