While the early frontrunners in Oscar’s foreign-language category appear to be from Europe, with the likes of Ruben Ostlund’s “The Square” (Sweden), Agnieszka Holland’s “Spoor” (Poland), Michael Haneke’s “Happy End” (Austria), Jonas Carpignano’s “A Ciambra” (Italy), Joachim Trier’s “Thelma” (Norway) and Carla Simon’s “Summer 1993” (Spain) dominating conversations and awards, Asia has a few tricks up its sleeve.
Leading the Asian charge is Cambodia’s submission “First They Killed My Father,” directed by the very visible Angelina Jolie. Based on the memoirs of human-rights activist Loung Ung, the film is an unflinching look at the horrors wrought by the Khmer Rouge after the Cambodian civil war in the 1970s.
Told through the eyes of the 5-year-old Ung, played with wide-eyed winsome charm by Sareum Srey Moch, the film dispassionately looks at how she is separated from her parents and siblings and is thrust into the thick of the conflict. As with his Oscar-winning cinematography on “Slumdog Millionaire,” Anthony Dod Mantle’s camera is restless, probing and captures the beauty of Cambodia amongst the grim proceedings.
The film is a Netflix Original and after being shut out of the Academy Awards for “Beasts of No Nation,” the streaming giant will surely look to putting its considerable might behind “First They Killed My Father.” The presence of Cambodian auteur Rithy Panh, whose “The Missing Picture” was nominated in the category, as a producer adds considerable heft to the project.
Prospects elsewhere are rosy.
Hun Jang’s South Korean submission “A Taxi Driver” deals with the serious subject of the 1980 Gwangju massacre, but the treatment is feel-good. The familiar face of Thomas Kretschmann, playing a German journalist who brought the world’s attention to the tragedy, and his unlikely bond with a Korean taxi driver (Song Kang-ho) who is too caught up with making ends meet to pay attention to political events in his country, makes the subject matter accessible to voters.
The taxi driver’s lack of knowledge about the events unfolding becomes a neat device to educate audiences unfamiliar with Korean politics. Well Go USA Entertainment, which also distributed Korean zombie hit “Train to Busan,” is distributing “A Taxi Driver” in the U.S.
Well Go, along with H Collective, is also the distributor behind China’s entry “Wolf Warrior 2.” The film might be the China’s biggest box office success of all time, but foreign-language branch voters are unlikely to warm to Jing Wu’s jingoistic shoot ’em up where the body count ratchets up.
Altogether more gentle fare is Kirsten Tan’s Thailand-set Thai-language “Pop Aye,” Singapore’s submission. The film follows a burnt-out architect who sets off on a road trip across Thailand with his long-lost elephant to his village and is an easy charmer, with the pachyderm expectedly stealing the show. “Pop Aye” has been festooned with awards including top prizes at Sundance, Rotterdam and Zurich, and seasoned U.S. distributor Kino Lorber will capitalize on this.
Ryota Nakano’s “Her Love Boils Bathwater” is much-lauded in Asia and at home in Japan, but the film hasn’t had much traction elsewhere. The film is thematically similar to Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 masterpiece “Ikiru,” in which the protagonist finds out that he has a limited time to live and decides to make a difference.
Unlike “Ikiru,” in which the central character is in his twilight years, in “Her Love Boils Bathwater” the doomed protagonist is in the prime of her life and has a young family. The film is moving and its emphasis on preserving the family unit will resonate across cultures.
Also deeply affecting is Chun Wong’s “Mad World,” the Hong Kong Oscar submission. The film charts the relationship between Tung, a bipolar stockbroker and his truck driver father, who are forced to share cramped living quarters. Looming over them is the death of Tung’s mother after a long and difficult illness. The film won several awards locally, including acting prizes for Hong Kong veteran Eric Tsang, delivering one of his career-best performances.
India has always flattered to deceive in the foreign-language category, scoring three nominations but no wins. In recent years the country has sent films with festival cred. This year’s entry, Amit Masurkar’s “Newton,” has awards from Berlin and Hong Kong and is a domestic hit. Its story about the travails of an honest poll officer trying to conduct free and fair elections should strike a chord with Academy voters. The U.S. distributor, yet to be finalized, will be critical to the film’s chances.
In the dark horse category, Deepak Rauniyar’s “White Sun” from Nepal, a look at the brittle political and social post-civil war scenario in the country, arrives with several awards, including from Palm Springs and Venice; while Anocha Suwichakornpong’s “By the Time It Gets Dark” from Thailand, and also laden with awards, is a meditative piece that pieces together 1976 Thammasat University massacre through several different points of view.