Romania and Tunisia Cheer First Oscar Nominations, as Hong Kong’s ‘Better Days’ Triumphs After Long Road

Courtesy Academy

Early reactions to this year’s best international feature film Oscar nominees are in, and Romania and Tunisia are jubilant for their first Academy Award nods, respectively, for “Collective” and “The Man Who Sold His Skin.”

The Venice Film Festival-premiering “The Man Who Sold His Skin,” which gained steam late in the game, is also being applauded for its female director, Kaouther Ben Hania, who marks her second feature. Her first film, “Beauty and The Dogs,” played in the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard program in 2017.

“It’s a historical nomination for Tunisia,” Ben Hania told Variety. “I am very proud to represent my country, Africa and the Arab cinema. I want to thank all my team and partners and all who believed in this film.”

Alexander Nanau’s “Collective,” instead, has the rare distinction of scoring Oscar nominations in both the international feature film and documentary feature categories.

Nanau’s hard-hitting investigative documentary centers on the 2015 fire at the Colectiv nightclub that killed 64 people and injured hundreds, detailing the health care crisis and political corruption within the Romanian government that contributed to the tragedy. In January, the director rejected a medal from the country’s president and slammed the government for failing the cultural sector during the coronavirus crisis.

On Monday, commenting the double Oscar noms, Nanau told Variety he had been “prepared for everything, even for none,” he said. “It is for sure an immense honor that the voters of the Academy nominated [Collective] in two categories and it really, you know, it gives one hope that cinema can really connect us worldwide,” he added, in particular “given the story of citizens being crushed by corrupt and incompetent powers; that is a problem worldwide right now,” he noted.

Other contenders for best international feature film include Denmark’s “Another Round,” Hong Kong’s “Better Days” and “Quo Vadis, Aida?” from Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“Another Round” director Thomas Vinterberg told Variety in an email that the nomination for his Mads Mikkelsen-starring film is “wonderful news.” Vintenberg is also Oscar-nominated in the best director category.

“Thank you very much to the Academy, and congratulations to my fellow nominees. I’m honored to be in your company. I’ve made some films over the years, but none of them have meant so much to me as this one,” Vinterberg said.

“During a long journey like this, it matters most to be surrounded by great collaborators who are also great friends. My actors, Mads, my co-writer Tobias, Sturla my DOP, my producers from Zentropa and the amazing behind the scenes talent were all on this journey with me and gave all they had. Thank you from Denmark.”

“Quo Vadis, Aida” director Jasmila Žbanić told Variety, also by email, how important the nomination is, not just for the film, but for the tragedy it depicts.

“I am truly honored and wish to express my deepest gratitude to Academy members who have voted for ‘Quo Vadis, Aida?’,” Žbanić said. “The entire crew is also grateful to all friends who have supported us along the way. For us, ‘Quo Vadis, Aida?’ is more than a film. It is a reminder that the Srebrenica genocide which occurred in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995 as well as any other genocide must never be forgotten or denied. We hope that by understanding what happened in Srebrenica, we will understand each other better.”

Meanwhile, Monday’s Oscar nomination marks a victorious moment already for “Better Days.”

From being pulled out of the 2019 Berlin Film Festival for unexplained reasons, through multiple release cancellations, on to eventual box office triumph and, finally, an Oscar nomination, director Derek Tsang has had a long and rocky ride.

Contacted by Variety on Monday, Tsang was said to be in shock and putting off all interviews until the morning.

The film is a powerful melodrama that mixes up a school bullying tale with a story of mismatched love. That’s an uncomfortable cocktail that was almost certainly too heady for mainland Chinese authorities who are eternally vigilant about protecting the country’s image.

However, once it was allowed to release some eight months later, and was seen to be lapped up by critics and upmarket audiences, “Better Days” was allowed to play at foreign film festivals, and rights were widely licensed. Sales agent We Distribution says that France, so often the first country to welcome overseas art, is the only major territory still unsold.

One other matter that remains unresolved, and is certain to provoke further debate, is whether the film should rightly be representing Hong Kong. Tsang hails from Hong Kong, but the film is entirely set in China and its two superb leads, Zhou Dongyu and pop idol-turned-actor Jackson Yee, are both mainlanders. China, instead, selected “Leap,” a film with a far more patriotic message. But, then again, both “Leap” and “Better Days” count Hong Kongers Peter Chan Ho-sun and Jojo Hui as producers.

Elsewhere, Italy, though snubbed in both the best international feature film and documentary (“Notturno”) categories, cheered its three Oscar nominations with Matteo Garrone’s “Pinocchio” scoring in the costume design and best makeup and hairstyling categories, and a best original song nod for “Io Si (Seen)” for Sophia Loren-starrer “The Life Ahead,” a meager consolation for the “The Life Ahead” team. 

Elsa Keslassy, Leo Barraclough, Jamie Lang and Naman Ramachandran contributed to this report.