Asia eyes Oscar glitz, glamour even as its own films absent

AP News
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Posted: Feb 12, 2015 3:36 AM
Asia eyes Oscar glitz, glamour even as its own films absent

BEIJING (AP) — Asia will be tuning in to the Oscars and its glitz and glamour, even though the region's films are missing from the shortlists.

Users of Chinese social media discuss animatedly whether comedy "Birdman" or the 12-years-in the-making "Boyhood" will win best picture — movies that haven't been shown in theaters here but are available on streaming websites.

The interest is evident even though Asian films are sorely lacking on the foreign language category shortlist — something that frustrates some Asian filmmakers and industry insiders, while others expected nothing less from voting dominated by Los Angeles-based Academy members.

The lack of an Asian presence comes despite China and Japan being the world's second- and third-biggest movie markets by ticket sales. Bollywood churns out more than a 1,000 films a year, and only five Indians have ever won at the Oscars, three of whom for 2009 Oscar winner "Slumdog Millionaire," a British movie.

"I mean who wouldn't want to win an Oscar, but we don't make films with an eye to the Academy," said Supratik Sen, a writer and assistant director on several Bollywood films. "That whole thing is very Hollywood-centric."

For film buffs and serious filmmakers in India, recognition at Cannes, Venice and Sundance "has more street cred," Sen added.

This year, no Asian pictures made the nine-film shortlist in the foreign language category, whittled from 83 films submitted by 83 governments. The nine were chosen by a committee consisting of several hundred L.A.-based Academy members and a foreign language film award executive committee. Entries included Hong Kong's "The Golden Era," a biographical film about Chinese novelist Xiao Hong, shot partly in a documentary style by award-winning director Ann Hui, and Taiwan's "Ice Poison," about two young people who are caught between lust and drug addiction in Myanmar.

Beijing's nomination of the China-France co-production "The Nightingale" surprised film critics, who thought worthier choices were "Black Coal, Thin Ice," about a murder within the mining industry that won Berlin International Film Festival's main Golden Bear prize, and Zhang Yimou's tearjerker "Coming Home," whose events stem from the Cultural Revolution. "The Nightingale" is an adaptation by director Philippe Muyl of his 2002 French film "The Butterfly," and contains lavish shots of the rice paddy landscape of southeast China as a grandfather and granddaughter journey back to his hometown.

China doesn't reveal the reasons behind its choices, or who is on its nomination committee, thought to be comprised of government officials, artists and film professors. Many film critics believe the government doesn't want to nominate films that show the country in a bad light, regardless of their chance of winning.

"A Chinese film can only win an Oscar when there is a complete consensus between the Chinese film regulator and the people that run the Oscars," said director Jiang Wen in an interview at the Berlin Film Festival, where his "Gone with the Bullets" is competing.

Some Asian entries were chosen to try to cater to the tastes of Western voters. South Korea's entry was "Haemoo," based on a real-life incident in 2001 when eight crewmen of a South Korean fishing boat were arrested for dumping the bodies of 25 Chinese immigrants into the sea after they suffocated to death in a storage bay.

The country's entry-picking panel, which includes a director, critic and representatives of movie production studios and distribution companies, chose the tense thriller mainly because it was well-received at another North American movie event — the Toronto film festival, said Kim Mee-hyun, director of international affairs at the Korean Film Council.

"Simply put, the Oscars represent the Americans' view," said Steven Tu, a past programmer for the Taipei Film Festival and jury member for the Golden Horse awards, considered the Chinese-language equivalent of the Oscars.

"If we challenge these American views with Asian films and cultures, it's hard in the first place."

An animated film from Japan and a short film from China, which are popular genres in their respective countries, did make the shortlists in those categories.

French director Jean-Jacques Annaud sees himself as having made an "Asian film" with his latest "Wolf Totem," based on a Chinese novel and filmed in China in Chinese. The state hopes it can be an Oscar contender next year, and Annaud said the Chinese backers initially wanted an "English-speaking movie with famous Chinese-American actors" until he talked them round.

Whether a film succeeds at the Oscars also comes down to distribution.

Kim, of the Korean Film Council, said that a movie's quality often wasn't as important as having a powerful U.S. distributor capable of exposing the work to the larger part of the academy's 6,000 voting members, a boost Asian films rarely get.

"In Cannes, Venice and Berlin, you have a shot at winning as long as your film is good enough because the competition is shaped by programmers, executive members and judges," she said.

Annaud, whose film "Black and White in Color" won the best foreign language category in 1976, said that that category only allowed one entry from a country, whether it be China or Burkina Faso.

"For the other categories a lot of very good Chinese movies are not distributed in America so how do you want people to vote for films that they haven't seen?" Annaud said in an interview in Beijing. "If more Chinese movies would be popular in the American market there would be a chance to see actors from China or a screenplay writer from China being nominated."

Still, a slice of the younger, cinema-going audience in Asia is fascinated by the Oscars and the celebrities that go with them.

Hollywood visitors like Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt always draw big crowds, and Japanese actors who get roles in Hollywood films, such as Ken Watanabe, become even bigger stars in their home country. The fact that people like Clint Eastwood and George Lucas have made films inspired by Japanese classics means a lot to Japan.

"Of course, the Oscars are the biggest film occasion in the world," said Chinese actor Feng Shaofeng, who starred in Hong Kong's entry, "The Golden Era." ''All of us follow it closely, and hope our own work will be loved by them and given attention."

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AP writers Angela Chen in Hong Kong, Muneeza Naqvi in Delhi, Kim Tong-hyung in Seoul, Yuri Kageyama in Tokyo and Louise Dixon in Berlin contributed to this report.