A stacked non-category helps countries define themselves for the world.
Serendipitously, a prison guard finds himself slowly ingratiating himself to a superior (who happens to be the prison’s hangman executioner), reluctantly climbing a jagged social arête towards….where exactly? The prestige of being a professional killer?
Singapore’s Apprentice, directed by Boo Junfeng, is a harrowing examination of the country’s judicial system and often over-enthusiastic death penalty by way of the physical and social mechanics of death. It received a standing ovation at Cannes and is the country’s entry to the foreign language Oscar – one of 85 eligible to compete.
Will the stunning film – riddled with shadows, brutally workmanlike style, and wrenching performances – be able to make an impact in such a crowded field? And what of the rest of the contenders? What makes this Oscar category a category beyond the simple metric of subtitles?
(And yes, those subtitles are an important component – this is a foreign LANGUAGE Oscar, not just a foreign film Oscar. That’s why Canada can submit a film shot in Hebrew or the U.K. can rally behind its Farsi submission.)
An increase from last year’s 81 films, these global submissions will be pruned to a small list of nine finalists, with only five receiving nominations. These films are often well-decorated in their home countries, vying for the top spot of Oscar prestige. But sometimes it’s not so clear cut. Politics can get in the way, especially when countries wish to present a certain image to the rest of the world and when it has a highly politicized committee dictating which selections make the cut.
Italy, for example, chose Fire at Sea, a refugee-focused documentary whose indirect rage at the crisis and humane appreciation of those that helped treat migrants was so moving that the Italian prime minister handed out 27 DVD copies to EU leaders. It’s not just a crisis film, it’s a film showing the benevolence of Italians during a crisis. Yemen, competing for the first time ever, entered I Am Nojoom, Age 10 and Divorced which, as you may guess, is a based-on-a-true-story damnation of the country’s child bride culture.
Like Apprentice, these films have agendas that permeate and stretch through their artistry. What better PR than having your film win out of all the countries on America’s biggest film stage?
These are the faces the countries wish to present to the world – progressive films that couch their character studies in issues. This image management means that sometimes the less savory side of politics comes into the decision-making process.
The battle for nationhood has raged within the walls of the Academy as Palestine vied for recognition in the past and Israel pushed back with an industry-spanning response. This year, Brazil’s submission was expected to be Cannes competitor Aquarius but the director’s pro-democracy politics and protests (including a trilingual cast protest at the film’s first screening at Cannes) over impeached and ousted President Dilma Rousseff led to the souring of Brazil’s selection committee towards the film. Instead, the safe Little Secret was chosen, though it’s been called “one of the worst of the recent Brazilian films” in reviews.
Notoriously transparent and nary-corrupt Russia chose Paradise by Andrei Konchalovsky, who just happens to be Russian Cinematographers’ Union head and hardcore Putin supporter Nikita Mikhalkov’s brother. That’s probably just talent rising to the top.
Moaning about geopolitics aside, there’s also the question of playing to the notoriously crotchety and dour Academy, who (in the past) have rewarded certain topics with much more gravitas than others. When comedies can hardly break into the awards if they’re not animated, what hope does a fun movie from Japan have against a heavy Holocaust picture?
To my mind, one of the most apparent instances of this is in South Korea. In a dead heat between two critical darlings – Park Chan-wook’s buzz-heavy and sensuous The Handmaiden and Kim Jee-woon’s cloak-and-dagger war drama The Age of Shadows – the South Korean selection board went with the latter.
Which do you think the Academy is more likely to respond to: a sexually fluid mystery or a good ol’ fashioned war drama?
South Korea likely thought similarly.
However, there are some extremely interesting entries coming from western Europe. France picked Elle, Paul Verhoeven’s thriller showcase of Isabelle Huppert’s raw power, while Germany grabbed festival favorite Toni Erdmann, a long and intense (both to the heart and the funny bone) father-daughter character study. Neither are in particularly conducive genres to win the award, but then neither is the absolutely terrific horror flick Under the Shadow, the UK’s selection set in Tehran.
With a few other notable submissions (like Andrzej Wajda’s final film Afterimage, Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman, and Pablo Larraín’s Neruda) it’s easy to see how the Oscar committee could get bogged down under the sheer number of submissions and take the easy way out – pick the In a Better World over the Dogtooth.
When a category becomes this overloaded, it seems not only wasteful but disgraceful to whittle down all of global cinema to one genre-spanning award. But hey, if this was the biggest problem the Academy faced, we’d all be in better shape. Being better movie-lovers means seeking out more obscure submissions from different parts of the world than Europe whose *ahem* 56 Oscar wins in this category make it a little obvious this category once treated “foreign” as a synonym for “French”.
You can find a full list of the entries below sorted by country of submission, with links to those we’ve seen or reviewed (updated as we see ‘em):
The Well (Algeria)
The Distinguished Citizen (Argentina)
The Unnamed (Bangladesh)
The Ardennes (Belgium)
Sealed Cargo (Bolivia)
Death in Sarajevo (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
Little Secret (Brazil)
Before the Fall (Cambodia)
It’s Only the End of the World (Canada)
Xuan Zang (China)
Alias Maria (Colombia)
About Us (Costa Rica)
On the Other Side (Croatia)
The Companion (Cuba)
Lost in Munich (The Czech Republic)
Land of Mine (Denmark)
Sugar Fields (Dominican Republic)
Such is Life in the Tropics (Ecuador)
The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (Finland)
House of Others (Georgia)
Toni Erdmann (Germany)
Port of Call (Hong Kong)
Kills on Wheels (Hungary)
Letters from Prague (Indonesia)
The Salesman (Iran)
El Clásico (Iraq)
Sand Storm (Israel)
Fire at Sea (Italy)
Nagasaki: Memories of My Son (Japan)
3000 Nights (Jordan)
Home Sweet Home (Kosovo)
A Father’s Will (Kyrgyzstan)
Very Big Shot (Lebanon)
Seneca’s Day (Lithuania)
Voices from Chernobyl (Luxembourg)
The Liberation of Skopje (Macedonia)
The Black Pin (Montenegro)
A Mile in My Shoes (Morocco)
The Black Hen (Nepal)
Tonio (The Netherlands)
A Flickering Truth (New Zealand)
The King’s Choice (Norway)
The Idol (Palestine)
Videophilia (and Other Viral Syndromes) (Peru)
Ma’ Rosa (Philippines)
Letters from War (Portugal)
Barakah Meets Barakah (Saudi Arabia)
Train Driver’s Diary (Serbia)
Eva Nova (Slovakia)
Houston, We Have a Problem! (Slovenia)
Call Me Thief (South Africa)
The Age of Shadows (South Korea)
A Man Called Ove (Sweden)
My Life as a Zucchini (Switzerland)
Hang in There, Kids! (Taiwan)
Cold of Kalendar (Turkey)
Ukrainian Sheriffs (Ukraine)
Under the Shadow (U.K.)
From Afar (Venezuela)
Yellow Flowers on the Green Grass (Vietnam)
I Am Nojoom, Age 10 and Divorced (Yemen)
Related Topics: Awards, Film Festivals