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R-E-S-P-E-C-T. As in, not enough for Asian films at the Oscars. Here at APA, we make sure lightning doesn't strike twice. To wit: Our byline-by-byline breakdown of the Academy's yearly snafus.
Much has been written of the intricate rules governing the Academy Awards’ best foreign film nominations. How, for example, did Pedro Almodovar’s Talk to Her win Best Screenplay without earning a best foreign film nomination? Why was Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood For Love ineligible for any 2002 Oscars in sure-fire categories like costumes, cinematography, and art direction? I turned to the Academy website for its official guidelines regarding foreign film recognition at the Oscars(http://www.oscars.org/77academyawards/rules/rule14.html) and discovered that the reasons the best Asian films are consistently left unrecognized by the Academy are inscribed within these very rules. With the exception of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2001, no Asian film has won the best foreign film Oscar since 1955, and unless there is a dramatic renovation of official Academy rules, it is unlikely that the best of Asian cinema will be awarded, given the transforming conditions of contemporary film production.
According to the rules, countries submit films to be considered for nomination, and this year, eight Asian countries (China, India, Japan, Malaysia, Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand) are among the 50 worldwide that have sent film prints to Hollywood for a chance at one of the five coveted nominations to be announced on January 25, 2005. The official rules consist of three major categories regarding submission and nomination. They are:
While the Academy officially defines a foreign film as “a feature-length motion picture produced outside the United States of America with a predominantly non-English dialogue track,” its rules for eligibility further limit the pool of potential nominees.
1. "The film must be first released in the country submitting the film between October 1, 2003 and September 30, 2004, and first publicly exhibited by means of 35mm or 70mm film…"
This rule is an indication of how out-of-date and even arrogant the Academy remains regarding foreign cinema. Digital production and digital exhibition are becoming the norms for independent cinema in many places around the world. Whereas American exhibitors continue to balk at the inability of digital projection to mimic the perfection of celluloid, exhibitors of smaller films abroad have recognized that digital projection is the only economic way for independent cinema to be shown commercially. That the only acceptable alternative to 35mm projection is 70mm further proves the extent to which the Academy defines cinema by outdated standards of sound and image.
Japan’s submission this year is Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 35mm film Nobody Knows. While I am not skeptical of the film’s artistic merits (I have not seen it, but am a fan of the director’s previous three features), I wonder what exciting Japanese films were kept from consideration due to this stipulation. My favorite Japanese feature this year, Yutaka Tsuchiya’s Peep TV Show, was shot and projected on digital. In fact, its theme--voyeuristic technologies in the post-9/11 world--takes advantage of the visual effect of digital projection; we are implicated in the film’s discussions of new visual technologies through our very act of watching a video projected as a video. While I doubt that Japan would have submitted an experimental film like Peep TV Show even if it qualified, I am left to wonder what is being ignored because of such outdated regulations.
2. "The film must be first released in the country submitting the film between October 1, 2003 and September 30, 2004 … for at least seven consecutive days in a commercial motion picture theater for the profit of the producer and exhibitor, advertised and exploited during its eligibility run in a manner considered normal and customary to the industry."
This rule assumes that the country has such an industry to begin with. Taiwan is an example of a market crazy about movies--just not local ones. With few exceptions, Taiwanese films are simply not released in commercial theaters, although they are celebrated in film festivals abroad as being among the world’s best. If we define “the industry” as the entire exhibition industry, then there are probably three or four films per year that have the marketing power to compete with Hollywood films and survive even seven days given the standards for publicity and hype created by the American imports. If we define “the industry” as only the local filmmaking industry, the number of eligible films is not much bigger, since the best of Taiwanese cinema only sees the light of day through local film festivals and are thus not for profit, let alone in theaters for seven consecutive days. What’s left then are the annual exceptions. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was one, and so is this year’s Oscar submission 20:30:40, by Sylvia Chang, which received a theatrical release based on its famous stars rather than artistic merit.
This has increasingly become a detriment rather than an advantage in selling local films to audiences. A similarly dwindling industry exists in Malaysia, whose glory days as a mainstream powerhouse ended in the '60s, and while it is convenient this year to celebrate the country’s first ever Oscar submission, A Legendary Love, by Saw Teong Hin, most won’t realize the tragedy of the Malaysian film industry. Like Taiwan’s Crouching Tiger, A Legendary Love is an exception celebrated above all for its size: it’s the country’s most expensive film ever.
3. "The submitting country must certify that creative talent of that country exercised artistic control of the film."
“Artistic control of the film” has always been interpreted loosely. Crouching Tiger was shot in China, funded by Hong Kong, Taiwanese, and U.S. producers, and made popular by stars from Hong Kong, Malaysia, Taiwan, and China, yet Taiwan claimed the film because of the director’s nationality. On the other hand though, the director of Farewell My Concubine was from China, but in 1993 it was submitted by Hong Kong, which provided funding and a lead actor. The Thai film industry proves even more difficult to label in terms of nationality, given the association of four of its most successful and acclaimed directors--Pan-ek Ratanaruang, Nonzee Nimibutr, Danny Pang, and Oxide Pang--with Applause pictures, a remarkable transnational production company headed by Hong Kong-based Peter Chan as a way for pooling talent from across Asia to collaborate in projects that can compete with Hollywood productions.
Applause is responsible for the prestigious horror film Three and its equally praised “sequel” Three…Extremes. The first, released in 2002, included short horror films by Kim Jee-woon of South Korea, Nimubtr from Thailand, and Peter Chang from Hong Kong; the second, released in 2004, included shorts from Takashi Miike from Japan, Park Chan-wook from South Korea, and Fruit Chan from Hong Kong.
How can a nation’s submission committee claim artistic control of such films? Since the Academy prohibits submission of short films, the individual episodes cannot be submitted individually. Applause’s other successful horror series, The Eye (2002) and The Eye 2 (2004), are equally transnational. Shot in Hong Kong and Thailand with casts and crews from both, directed by the Pang brothers--who are Thai by nationality but work in Hong Kong--and featuring lead actresses from Malaysia and Taiwan respectively, they resist categorization and reflect Asian production in the new global economy. Therefore, it is not surprising that Thailand’s official submission this year is “Thai” in a very traditional sense. Itthisoontorn Vichailak’s The Overture is a biopic of Luang Pradit Pairoh, one of the most beloved and distinctively Thai musicians in the country’s recent history.
Once a film is deemed eligible by Academy rules, it is submitted according to strict guidelines involving shipping and subtitling. I am singling out two statements in this section of the official rules:
1. "Every country shall be invited to submit its best film to the Academy."
“Country” here is flexible enough to include special cases like Hong Kong and Taiwan, but what I’m interested in is what the Academy means by “best film.” India presents an interesting situation in that it contains the only film market in the world that does not rely on Hollywood for sustenance. In fact, the mainstream Indian film industries, including the famous Hindi industry affectionately known as Bollywood, have carved out a distinctive popular style that actually resists efforts of cultural imperialism by Hollywood. Yet in selecting its “best film,” India consistently submits films that conform to Western rather than local notions of quality. An example is Deepa Mehta’s 1999 film Earth, which received far greater praise abroad than in India, yet was the country’s submission. India’s official picks in fact correspond more closely to India’s National Film Awards (which tends to favor experimental, independent features, often in minority languages) rather than the country’s more popular awards like the Filmfare Awards, the Zee Cine Awards, and the Screen Weekly Awards, which tend to celebrate films from the Bollywood industry.
This year’s entry, Sandeep Sawant’s Shwaas, a Marathi language film about life with cancer, is no exception. India’s decisions to submit the Bollywood films Lagaan (2001) and Devdas (2002) are probably due to the fact that these films also became critical hits and had already received international acclaim as art films before they were submitted for foreign film consideration.
2. "Only one picture will be accepted from each country."
In my opinion, this could be the most devastating regulation of all. Thailand, China, and South Korea are witnessing golden ages of mainstream and art cinema. So nations’ selection committees are forced to select between great films, which often results in compromised selections that don’t reflect the country’s artistic contributions to world cinema, but rather, what film the country feels has the most chances of being nominated. A flagrant recent example occurred in 2000 when Taiwan overlooked Edward Yang’s Yi Yi: A One and a Two--which Sight and Sound contributors in 2002 voted one of the 10 greatest films of the last 25 years--in favor of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which seemed a sure nomination, if not winner.
This year, we see this in the Philippines, where three Oscar-eligible films (Bridal Shower, Crying Ladies, Woman of Breakwater) and one Oscar-ineligible film (Magnifico, which was released in 2003) were the most acclaimed films of 2004. While it was Woman of Breakwater that received the most overwhelming praise, the committee decided on Crying Ladies, which had already received American acceptance and was released theatrically in Los Angeles, New York, New Jersey, Honolulu, San Diego, and San Francisco.
A similar compromise explains China’s submission, Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers, which received far more praise at Cannes than it did in East Asia. In China, at both the critics’ awards (the Golden Rooster Awards) and the popular awards (the One Hundred Flowers Awards), Zhang’s wuxia romance lost best picture to Peng Xiaolian’s Shanghai Story, yet my burning suspicion is that Peng’s film never had a chance for a submission (which would have boosted its commercial chances) against the internationally recognized Zhang Yimou, who had already been nominated three times before.
1. "All submissions sent to the Academy will be screened by the Academy’s Foreign Language Film Award Committee(s). After the screenings, the committee(s) will vote by secret ballot to nominate five foreign language pictures for this award."
Who comprises this mysterious body that determines what films are nominated? From what I can gather online, Academy members can volunteer to be part of the committee although they ultimately must be approved. In addition, committee members must attend a given number of submitted films (which in most years is about 15) at special Academy screenings. This stipulation results in a self-selected group of voters that tend to have a lot of spare time, so are probably retired or inactive industry professionals. That said, South Korea’s decision not to submit its Cannes jury winner and Pusan Film Critics Association best picture Old Boy (which Roger Ebert blasted as sadistic and savage) is hardly a surprise given the presumably conservative taste of the voting body. Instead, South Korea is submitting the mega-hit Tae Guk Gi, Kang Je-gyu’s Korean War epic melodrama about brothers drawn apart by political, military, and moral forces, i.e. the kind of film that Hollywood in the '50s and '60s became famous worldwide for. That the film received tepid to marginal praise within South Korea seems hardly an issue, especially because the goal of a country’s submission is not to show off its “best film” but the one most likely to be nominated, since that is where the glory (and money) rests.
What this examination proves is that the Academy has not accommodated changes in the Asian film industries to resist Hollywood domination, whether that resistance is aesthetic (as with Old Boy or the latest Bollywood hit) or industrial (as with the transnational productions and the alternative exhibition technologies). While rules for eligibility, submission, and voting are necessary for the Academy’s purposes, they ought to be remodeled to account for the changing notions of cinema and cinema-going abroad. So when we groan about the lack of surprises when the Academy announces its five nominees on January 25, we shouldn’t simply blame its bad taste or lament the “end of cinema” but instead recognize that the Academy’s stale definitions of world cinema are limiting what films we can celebrate and see.
Date Posted: 12/21/2004