2019 Oscars: A Look at Asian Films in This Year’s Foreign Language Oscar Race
Our weekly Foreign Language Oscar race analysis pieces continue this week with a special look at the Asian films in this year’s race.
Asian films have long been ignored in this category. Despite the strong film industry in each of China, Japan and South Korea, very few Asian films have made it to the final five (or even shortlist) in the past 15 years. What’s more: South Korea is one of the most submitted and never nominated countries ever in the history of the category, competing with Egypt (another country with a strong local film industry) as the most submitted country never to be shortlisted or nominated. Another Asian country that comes to mind is India, a country which, despite its massive film industry, rarely makes it here. The last Indian film to be nominated is 2011’s Lagaan starring frequent local box office champ Aamir Khan.
This year features some of the strongest Asian films to ever compete in this category. It all started back in April when the Cannes Film Festival announced one of its strongest Asian lineups in years, most of which would eventually become their Asian countries’ submissions for the FLF Oscar.
Let’s take a look at the Asian films with the best chances this year:
- From Japan – SHOPLIFTERS
Logline: A family of small-time crooks take in a child they find on the street.
Pros: SHOPLIFTERS is perhaps the strongest Asian (and Japanese) Oscar contender in the past 5 years. In fact, the last Japanese film to be nominated in this category is Japan’s own Departures, a 2008 film which not only got the nod but scored a surprise win that year. It’s been 10 years since any Japanese film made it – and if SHOPLIFTERS makes it, it will be for several reasons. First, the film won the Palme d’or at the Cannes Film Festival back in May, raising its international profile considerably. The film has an incredible emotional pull, and several universal themes that will resonate with any viewer. It’s also both accessible and daring – it pulls off an intelligent and piercing social critique of Japanese society and manages to be a touching reflection on ‘family’ in very fresh ways. Oscar voters love films that touch them, that tug at the heartstrings, while also standing for something more than pure entertainment. Whether it’s retelling a true story, or presenting striking social critiques or offering important commentaries on world issues, FLF films that usually end up being nominated are ones that make voters feel good about voting for them because they represent something that deserves the visibility an Oscar nod represents. SHOPLIFTERS fits the bill perfectly.
Cons: One key drawback is the long absence of Asian films in this category in the past 10 years. Despite a number of acclaimed films from all around the continent, it seemed that voters keep looking away. Another potential issue is that the ‘family’ theme could strike some voters as less urgent as FLF contenders tackling political issues or commenting on more pressing subjects happening in the world today. Will they feel that a graceful film on what constitutes a real family seem that urgent for them to vote for?
Committee save or popular vote? Popular vote. SHOPLIFTERS is a very accessible and touching film that will probably make it if it widely appeals. However, it’s also one of the very few films in the race that could also be saved by the elite committee. It’s artsy and accessible and easy to follow all at once. But we’re guessing its bigger chances is a popular vote since the elite committee will have artsier options to save. It’s a very strong year.
- From South Korea – BURNING
Logline: Jong-su, a part-time worker, bumps into Hae-mi while delivering, who used to live in the same neighborhood. Hae-mi asks him to look after her cat while she’s on a trip to Africa. When Hae-mi comes back, she introduces Ben, a mysterious guy she met in Africa, to Jong-su. One day, Ben visits Jong-su’s with Hae-mi and confesses his own secret hobby.
Pros: This will be one of the most interesting films to watch come December 17th (the day when the FLF shortlist will be announced). Despite earning no awards at Cannes, it did end up winning the FIPRESCI prize and quickly one of this year’s most acclaimed FLF contenders along with Mexico’s ROMA. Critics loved it and audiences largely welcomed it. However, the film did stir some controversy in South Korea (more on that in the Cons) and wasn’t a slam-dunk crowdpleaser. Working in its favor is its sharp and subtle social commentary on class in South Korea, its entertaining and thrilling sequences and marvelous cinematography. It’s one of the most atmospheric films in the race this year.
Cons: The film’s controversy in South Korea was sparked by those who feel the film represents a male gaze rather than a balanced view. It’s also over long and not as accessible as other contenders in the race. Its subtle critique of social class is disguised in a thrilling mystery, so voters not entirely paying attention throughout may just stop to care. The fact that South Korea has never been nominated in this category raises concern over whether voters just don’t connect with Korean cinema.
Committee save or popular vote? If BURNING makes it, it will almost definitely have to be saved by the elite committee. The film’s artsy and inaccessible sequences make it one of the year’s top contenders for an elite committee save. But it’s far from a lock because that committee will only be able to save 3 films – and they have an embarrassment of riches this year.
(Note: while Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq and other countries in the Middle East are technically Asian nations, we will cover their contenders in an upcoming piece focused on the Middle East and Africa).
ASIAN FILMS IN THE 2019 FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM OSCAR RACE
- Shoplifters – Japan (Magnolia)
- Burning – South Korea (Well Go USA)