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Why Asia Could Be a Dark Horse in Oscar’s Foreign-Language Race

The early money might be on Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” (Mexico) and Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Cold War” (Poland), but Asia appears to have a real shot at the Oscar foreign-language category, with a mixture of heavy-hitters and dark horses from an eclectic line-up.

The continent’s frontrunner is easily Japanese master Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Palme d’Or winner “Shoplifters.” The film follows a family of petty thieves and the repercussions that ensue after they take in a waif. Moving, eloquent, and with an emphasis on the family unit, this is a film that could sway even the most cynical. The film will also benefit from its Magnolia Pictures’ release in the U.S.

From South Korea, Lee Chang-dong’s “Burning,” winner of the Fipresci Prize at Cannes, is mesmerising. Beginning as a frustrated youth drama, it gradually moves into missing-person thriller territory, culminating in a cathartic finale. The film is based on a Haruki Murakami story and features his tropes, including a cat that may or may not exist. Well Go USA Entertainment is handling U.S. distribution and the familiar presence of Korean-American actor Steven Yeun (“Walking Dead,” “Sorry to Bother You”) as one of the leads is a bonus.

Mouly Surya’s feminist Indonesian Western “Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts,” which debuted at the 2017 Cannes Directors’ Fortnight, comes festooned with international awards. The richly satisfying revenge saga is lensed in glorious Cinemascope and features a Morricone-esque score. Specialist distributor KimStim is handling U.S. distribution.

Voters will be familiar with Cambodian veteran Rithy Panh, who scored a nomination in the category for 2013’s “The Missing Picture.” “Graves Without a Name” continues his documentation of the Khmer Rouge genocide.

China’s choice of Jiang Wen’s gangster film “Hidden Man” in the category may seem odd, given the presence of Jia Zhangke’s weightier drama in the same season, “Ash Is Purest White,” which is on the festival circuit. Nevertheless, Jiang’s film, the third in a loose trilogy that began with “Let the Bullets Fly” and continued with “Gone With the Bullets,” is an action spectacular that also features rooftop soaring in the vein of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

Similarly, the Hong Kong entry, Dante Lam’s “Operation Red Sea,” features stunning action set pieces, but the propagandist tone of the film, in which the mainland Chinese navy sends a crack squad to extricate a lone citizen from an African country at war, may not sit well with foreign branch voters.

From South Asia, India’s entry, Rima Das’ “Village Rockstars,” the tale of a 10-year-old growing up in straitened circumstances in a flood-prone village and with ambitions of starting her own rock band, has been charming audiences and winning awards the world over. Funding is being raised for an Oscar campaign. Across the border in Bangladesh, Mostofa Sarwar Farooki’s poignant “No Bed of Roses,” in which a renowned filmmaker causes a national scandal by marrying his daughter’s classmate, cannot deploy the charismatic presence of star Irrfan Khan (“The Lunchbox”) as he is undergoing treatment for an illness.

Pakistan’s entry, “Cake,” by Asim Abbasi, in which a family reunites from all over the globe in Karachi following an elder’s illness, is the most polished feature from the country in a long time. A Los Angeles-based PR agent is in place, as are plans for screenings and events attended by the film’s cast that includes Pakistani superstars Aamina Sheikh and Sanam Saeed.

Arunas Matelis’ documentary “Wonderful Losers: A Different World,” about the water carriers of professional cycling, cleaned up at home at the Lithuanian film awards, and also won prizes at Minsk, Trieste and Warsaw. From Kazakhstan, Sergei Dvortsevoy’s “Ayka,” the long-awaited follow-up to 2008’s much-awarded “Tulpan,” follows a Kyrgyzstani migrant’s travails on the streets of Moscow. The film’s Samal Yeslyamova won the lead actress prize at Cannes, where the film also played in competition earlier this year.

Taiwan’s “The Great Buddha+,” by Huang Hsin-yao, is a delightfully dark comedy mixed with pathos that revives the mordant found-footage genre. U.S. distributor Cheng Cheng Films should be able to parlay the film’s merits and multiple international awards to voters.

In the dark-horse category, the brothers Mahmoudi, Navid and Jamshid, continue their examination of the lives of Afghani immigrants in Iran in Afghanistan’s entry “Rona, Azim’s Mother,” carrying on from “A Few Cubic Meters of Love” and “Parting.” The deeply affecting film posits an organ transplant scenario where a son has to choose between his own life and that of his mother. The film recently won the Kim Ji-seok award at Busan. The 2017 Kim Ji-seok winner, “Malila: The Farewell Flower,” from Anucha Boonyawatana, is Thailand’s entry to the Oscars this year. The sensitive gay love story could resonate with voters with whom “Call Me by Your Name” found favor last year.

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