No matter how much you loved “Crazy Rich Asians” — that glittering Singapore-set spin on the princess movie, which charmed audiences to the tune of nearly a quarter of a billion dollars earlier this year — don’t be surprised when the Academy fails to give it a single above-the-line Oscar nomination. When that happens, it will no doubt inspire a dozen or more outraged editorials, as #OscarsSoWhite critics bemoan the lack of Asian talent among this year’s nominees.
Why wait? The time for such think pieces is now, especially since Hollywood’s tendency to snub Asian talent is hardly limited to studio projects. Just compare the history of Oscar’s foreign-language category to that of world cinema overall, where the influence of such Asian masters as John Woo, Wong Kar-wai, Jia Zhangke and Edward Yang has been ignored over the years. And if the organization doesn’t wake up and realize the bias, it stands to repeat the error in a year in which some of the category’s best submissions hail from countries that seldom, if ever, get nominated — such as Japan (Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Shoplifters”), South Korea (Lee Chang-dong’s “Burning”) and India (Rima Das’ “Village Rockstars” feels like a rural spin on “The Florida Project”).
It’s been a decade since the Academy has awarded any film from South or East Asia in the Oscar foreign-language category.
The last time it happened was 2009, for “Departures,” a feel-good movie about Japanese funeral customs — a crowd-pleaser, but hardly the country’s strongest work.
Five years later, the Academy nominated Cambodian director Rithy Panh’s Cannes-laureled documentary “The Missing Picture,” making for a grand total of three East Asian nominees in the 15 years since “The Twilight Samurai.”
To call that “scandalous” would be an understatement. But to label it “racist” might be going too far, even if it’s clear that the Academy has largely overlooked Asian cinema in favor of French and Italian movies, followed by Spanish, Swedish, Soviet, Dutch and Danish films. (For the sake of this argument, we are focusing on South and East Asia, not Russia and the Middle East, which has fared well lately, thanks to Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s twin wins.)
During the category’s first nine years — before it was voted on by the entire membership, but merely a special award chosen by a small committee — Japan was honored three times. Six decades and 12 nominations later, “Departures” is the country’s only other winner. Over the years, other Asian countries have earned nominations here and there: Taiwanese director Ang Lee has had movies in the mix three times, winning for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” while China and Hong Kong have gotten four noms between them (three for films made by Zhang Yimou). But the recognition has dwindled in recent years, except in the animated feature category, in which six Studio Ghibli films have been nommed.
To understand this phenomenon, it’s important to acknowledge that a basic difference of cinema vocabulary exists between Hollywood movies and, say, the time-skipping structure of Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien (whose “Three Times” was a direct influence on “Moonlight”) or the poetic, less-plot-driven films of Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose style clearly inspired trans director Anucha Boonyawatana’s beautiful “Malila: The Farewell Flower” (another of this year’s deserving Asian contenders).
Still, you can’t necessarily blame voters for finding such work, which does so well on the international festival circuit, to be difficult or dull. There’s also the fact that many of these countries are sabotaging themselves by putting forward the wrong movies. When the best films aren’t submitted — the way South Korea failed to choose “The Handmaiden” two years ago — the Academy shouldn’t be faulted for not nominating them.
In terms of sheer accessibility, Japanese director Kore-eda stands a decent chance with “Shoplifters,” which earned the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. His style is highly polished and easily understood around the world, while his favorite themes — the infinite permutations of family, whether biological or adoptive — typically resonate just as emotionally with Western audiences as they do at home.
Kore-eda’s profile at Cannes (where he first competed in 2001) has earned him a certain respect abroad.
“In France, I have a very solid fanbase, and depending on the film — like ‘Still Walking,’ for example — more people saw that film in France than in Japan,” says the director, whose next feature stars Juliette Binoche and Catherine Deneuve.
Kore-eda hopes that any Oscar recognition that “Shoplifters” might bring could do the same for his chances in the States.
“Film is the perfect medium to transcend borders. It is very much a universal medium,” agrees “Burning” director Lee, whose films have been selected by South Korea on four separate occasions, but never nominated.
“Burning,” may be remembered as one of the five most important films of 2018, but it is also a difficult one, full of ambiguities and borderline-unlikable characters.
For critics, that challenge — the way the film evolves in one’s mind after seeing it — is precisely what’s so exciting about “Burning,” although Lee insists, “I don’t make my films for a very narrow audience that will understand and accept them completely.”
Although some have found the movie — which may or may not be the story of a serial killer — less accessible than mainstream Korean fare, Lee predicts, “Through time and as they encounter more unfamiliar films, they’ll grow to accept films like ‘Burning,’ and I think that’s the experimental aspect of this film.”
That doesn’t bode well for voters, who’ve been so reluctant to give Asian cinema a chance in recent years. Then again, there’s a major wild card in this year’s voting: Academy president John Bailey is a strong advocate for the foreign-language award, leading a push to get more members to vote in the category. Last year, the Academy added 928 members, roughly half of them international — and all of whom will be allowed to stream the shortlisted films, if they want to participate in phase two.
So maybe Asian entries do stand a chance this year. The Academy has already mobilized to address its bias, but the field is filled with several strong contenders from around the world.