Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Poor Foreign Relations

AMPAS released its shortlist for the Foreign Language Oscar this year, with nine films selected out of a field of 65. The following nine will be whittled down to five on February 2, when the Oscar nominations are announced.
  • Argentina (5 noms/1 win), El Secreto de Sus Ojos
  • Australia (0 noms/0 wins), Samson and Delilah
  • Bulgaria (0 noms/0 wins), The World is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner
  • France (35 noms/9 wins), Un Prophete
  • Germany (15 noms/3 wins), Das Wiesse Band
  • Israel (8 noms/0 wins), Ajami
  • Kazakhstan (1 nom/0 wins), Kelin
  • The Netherlands (7 noms/3 wins), Winter in Wartime
  • Peru (0 noms/0 wins), The Milk of Sorrow
Overall, I don't think this is a necessarily bad group. However, that doesn't mean that Oscar didn't screw this up, nor does it mean they can't screw it up further. But before I rant on what didn't make this list, there are a few curiosities that I want to share first.
Now that Japan has finally won an Oscar (for Departures last year; it can be argued that another film should have won last year and that Japan should have already had a Foreign Language Oscar, but these are arguments for another time), Israel is now tied with Poland for the most nominations without a win. If Israel is indeed nominated this year, it will advance past Poland, and it seems unlikely it will win if it is, considering the competition.
Kazakhstan's entry, Kelin, apparently has no dialogue. If Oscar does nominate it, that would be a bold move for them.
Peru has the most interesting concept of a film from this list: The Milk of Sorrow is an allegory, in which women produce a disease through breastfeeding as a result of rape and abuse during war. If it ever comes Stateside, I'm going to make a point to see it.
Now, on to my rant. The Foreign Language Oscar serves as a way to honor the fact that great cinema doesn't just come from Hollywood, it comes from every corner of the globe. And yes, there are more than just five great foreign films made every year; surely there are hundreds. So there's no real way that the Oscars can recognize all of them. However, it is possible for them to recognize the accomplishments of other cinemas, and so far, the Oscars have done an excellent job at recognizing long-standing giants (notably European) and ignoring the blossoming developing cinemas (one of which is European).
It's undeniable that right now, of the major European cinemas, Germany is creating the highest quality films (France may get just as many nominations, but let's face it: some were just because they were French). Case in point: Downfall, which may be one of the best foreign films of the last decade, and The Lives of Others. What makes German cinema so great now, rather than in the past, is that German filmmakers have finally taken on the task of looking back at the past 100 years of German history. It may not be flattering, but as a nation Germany has recently started to accept its past, and as a result cinema has prospered from the themes of tragedy and redemption. As history itself dictates, you have to look back in order to move forward. And the Oscars are recognizing Germany's place as a cinematic power (as well as its international cousin, Austria).
The problem is that, both in international buzz and Oscar nominations, smaller cinemas usually are not recognized. These cinemas can produce quality films, but they may not ever find an audience abroad. This is the case of countries like Brazil, Cuba, Iran, South Africa, and Thailand. However, some of these smaller cinemas are flourishing internationally, and the lack of recognition is befuddling and irritating. There are two big examples of this, and as it turns out, neither have ever been nominated for an Oscar, both had a chance to get their first nomination this year, and neither is one the aforementioned shortlist.
The first such cinema is Romania. In film history, critics describe a period of reinvention in a country's cinema as a "new wave." And right now, by those terms, Romania is in the midst of a glorious new wave. Romania has used semi-documentary style filmmaking to explore the reality of post-Communist society, and the results have been nothing short of incredible. Films like The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days have earned international acclaim, and this year's Police, Adjective has continued Romania's winning streak. But no Oscar nominations at all? I say that it is finally time for Romania to be recognized as one of the highest-quality cinemas in the world today.
The second is Korea. When it comes to East Asia, Korea has always been the least significant of the region (apart from North Korea, but North Korean films are usually made only for North Koreans, and aren't usually exported). This is true for cinema as well. For example, look at the number of Oscar nominations for East Asia:
  • China: 2 nominations, 0 wins
  • Japan: 12 nominations, 1 win (plus 3 honorary awards)
  • Korea: 0 nominations, 0 wins
  • Taiwan: 3 nominations, 1 win
  • Hong Kong: 2 nominations, 0 wins
Notice that Korea is the only East Asian state to not have an Oscar nomination (for the record, I consider Mongolia to be Central Asia). And it's not because Korea produces low-quality films: from the films I've seen, Korean cinema is booming at the moment. Even their kitschy comedies are better produced than some American ones, since (to me at least) it seems as though all involved embrace the silliness completely. This year was especially fruitful, given the international success of Thrist and Mother, which was Korea's official submission. All in all, I think its time for Korea to get its due.
It may seem like I'm unhappy with the shortlist, and to an extent I am. But I'm not completely. I hope Das Wiesse Band and Un Prophete get nominations, and I hope one of the never-nominateds (Australia, Bulgaria, Peru) manage to sneak in. And I do think that this is a good survey of blossoming world cinema, especially since they passed over old favorites such as Italy, Sweden, and Spain. Hopefully, Oscar will get something right here this year.

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