Hamaguchi Ryusuke’s “Drive My Car,” Japan’s entry to the Academy Awards’ international category, looks to be the odds on favorite from Asia to win the category.
The drama with a theater world backdrop follows the trajectory of South Korean four-statuette winner “Parasite” in that it began its winning ways at Cannes and is festooned with awards en route to the Oscars. “Parasite” won the Palme d’Or, which “Drive My Car” did not, with that honor this year going to Julia Ducournau’s “Titane,” which became France’s entry to the category. It also recently won at the New York Film Critics Circle.
Nevertheless, “Drive My Car” won three awards at Cannes and has the added advantage of U.S. distribution, where it is currently on theatrical release.
The 2008 win for Takita Yojiro’s “Departures” remains Japan’s only win since the category was made competitive in 1956.
While Korean Ryoo Seung-wan’s “Escape From Mogadishu,” in which North and South Korean embassy staff try to flee war-torn Somalia, does not have quite the momentum that “Parasite” did, the country is very much the flavor du jour as the resounding success of “Squid Game” and the growing popularity of “Hellbound” proves.
Taiwan’s entries to the category are typically strong and this year is no different with Chung Mong-hong’s “The Falls,” which bowed at Venice and is also topical, being a drama set amidst COVID-19 quarantine.
If it is inspirational fare that Academy voters are after, they need look no further than the Hong Kong entry, Jimmy Wan’s “Zero to Hero,” which traces the journey of So Wa Wai, the territory’s first athlete to win gold at the Paralympic Games.
China has its best opportunity in years with spy thriller “Cliff Walkers,” which has a globally respected filmmaker in Zhang Yimou. Oscar voters are well familiar with the filmmaker as the only two times China has secured nominations are for his “Ju Dou” and “Hero.” While “Cliff Walkers” is nowhere near as jingoistic as some recent efforts from the Middle Kingdom, it is still staunchly nationalistic.
From Southeast Asia, the frontrunner is Kamila Andini’s girl empowerment tale “Yuni,” which won a prize at Toronto, while the Cambodian entry “White Building,” Kavich Neang’s nostalgic look at a demolished iconic Phnom Penh structure, won a top award at Venice.
The chances of Singapore’s entry, Wayne Peng’s “Precious Is the Night,” an elegant mystery thriller, and Malaysian entry, Muzzamer Rahman’s “Hail Driver!” set in the world of illegal cabs, depend entirely on the awards campaigns mounted by the film teams. From Thailand, Banjong Pisanthanakun’s supernatural horror mockumentary “The Medium,” is a box office success, but it remains to be seen if the genre is embraced by Oscar voters.
In South Asia, there isn’t an entry from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan where films are frowned upon. However, Afghanistan is the setting of the Australian entry, Granaz Moussavi’s “When Pomegranates Howl,” which follows a 9-year-old boy who works on the streets of Kabul. The strong global interest in Afghanistan and its exiled artists, coupled with the poignant subject matter could mean that the film is in with a shout.
The South Asian regional powerhouse India has flattered to deceive with just three nominations since the category began and in some years the country’s choice of entry has been baffling. The Indian entry this year, P. S. Vinothraj’s “Pebbles,” is a sound choice. The Tamil-language film, which looks at the relationship between a boy and his abusive, alcoholic father, won the top prize at Rotterdam and has displayed robust legs on the festival circuit.
Bangladesh also has a strong contender in Abdullah Mohammad Saad’s “Rehana,” featuring a towering central performance from Azmeri Haque Badhon as a teacher in a deeply patriarchal society who raises her voice against a sexual assault she has witnessed. The film debuted at Cannes and has been a mainstay on the festival circuit.
After several years of submitting entries, Pakistan does not have a contender this year and nor does Nepal. Bhutan had submitted Pawo Choyning Dorji’s “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom” last year, but it was disqualified and has been resubmitted this year. The film’s theme, that of a teacher on a remote posting who braves the elements and the facilities, is awards friendly and it won big at Palm Springs in 2020. It could therefore find favor with Academy voters too provided it has enough visibility.