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FOREIGN LANGUAGE OSCARS 2001

ODDS ON ASIA
Sweden’s fabulous entry is unlikely to get a nod, but Asia seems certain to be prominent in this year’s Foreign Language category of the Academy Awards, says Nick Roddick.

Given the time of the year the list comes out (December), it is tempting to see the Foreign Oscars as Hollywood's equivalent of the moment when the Lord of the Manor, overcome with seasonal largesse, invites the villagers up to the great house for the annual shindig. There will be a seat at the table for some (though it's not likely to be near the front). But most of the 46 hopefuls are likely to see slim pickings, either on Oscars night or at the international box office.

"46 countries submitting films"

Of course, Christmas is over. Indeed, by the time the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film is handed out, the Season of Goodwill will be a distant memory. Which is probably just as well since, of the 46 countries submitting films (one down from last year's record-breaking 47), only five will end up with a Golden Ticket.

For the record, Ecuador joins the race for the first time this year, while Algeria, Bulgaria, Chile, Korea, Morocco and Thailand return after an absence of one or more years. By contrast, Bhutan, Colombia, Indonesia, Lebanon, Peru, Romania, Tadjikistan and Wales, who were in the running last year, do not have an entry in 2000.

Two of the great names of postwar cinema - Hungary's Miklós Jancsó and Poland's Andrzej Wajda - had films in the preliminary list last year. But the only real arthouse name this year is Krzysztof Zanussi, representing Poland with the magnificently titled Zycie jako smiertelna choroba przenoszona droga plciowa (Life as a Fatal Sexually Transmitted Disease).

" two previous Foreign Oscar-winners"

There are, however, two previous Foreign Oscar-winners among the 46 hopefuls: Spain's José Luis Garci, who won in 1982 with Volver a empezar (To Begin Again); and Switzerland's Xavier Koller, the 1990 winner with Reise der Hoffnung (Journey of Hope). Of the two, Koller, with Gripsholm, seems the better bet for a double, something achieved in the past only by Bergman and Fellini (who won three a piece) and Visconti - illustrious company indeed.

Any thematic similarities between the 46 submissions is entirely fortuitous, given the varying criteria for their selection. Some countries use the submission procedure to reward what they see as the best film of the year - or at any rate the one by the director most popular among his colleagues. And some - the canniest - submit the kind of film they consider most likely to tickle the fancy of the Foreign Language Film Award Film Committee.

Given the Academy's proven fondness for films touching on the Holocaust, it is interesting to note that, this year, only one film - Czech entry Musime si pomahat (Divided We Fall) actually features a Jewish character in a World War II setting (although the War does play a minor role in the Hungarian, Norwegian and Slovak entries).

"dramas"

The vast majority of submissions (36) can be classified as dramas. There are only two actual comedies - a black one from Belgium and a comédie de moeurs from France. And - leaving aside the Japanese, Hong Kong and Taiwanese entries, all of which draw on traditional cinematic or story-telling elements - there are only two genre movies: a thriller from Austria and an action/adventure from Venezuela. Two thirds of the films have contemporary settings. And, of the 16 movies with period settings, four (the films from Finland, Greece, India and the Slovak Republic) only have them by dint of covering more or less long periods of history ending in the present day.

Strangely, two of this year's films - the Thai and Turkish entries – have the same basic plot premise: someone finding a large amount of money and deciding not to return it. Make of that what you will. But note that if they did give back the dosh, there would be no film. For all the cosmopolitanism implied by 46 submissions, the brutal fact is that only 13 countries have ever won the Best Foreign Film Oscar, 11 of them European. The exceptions are Argentina, which won with La historia oficial (The Official Version) in 1985, and Japan, which has won three (although nothing) since 1955.

But the 1990s have seen quite a wide range of winners, belying the idea that the Committee's tastes are limited. The Netherlands have won twice, both times with family sagas set predominantly in the past (Karakter/Character in 1997 and Antonia/Antonia's Line in 1995). Italy has also won twice, both times with films set around or during World War II (with La vita è bella/Life Is Beautiful in 1998, and with Mediterraneo in 1991). Also a double 1990s winner is Spain, with two totally different films: Fernando Trueba's Belle Epoque in 1993 and Pedro Almodóvar's Todo sobre mi madre (All About My Mother) last year. Finally, one statuette each has gone to the Czech Republic (Kolja/Kolya in 1996), Russia (Outomlionnye solntsem/Burnt by the Sun in 1994), France (Indochine in 1992) and Switzerland (Reise der Hoffnung/Journey of Hope in 1990).

Beyond a certain middle-of-the-road sensibility and the fact that six out of 10 are set in the past, there is not a lot to connect those nine - apart, that is, from the fact that all but two of them had a powerful US distributor campaigning on their behalf.

"this year's clear favourite"

Which is one of the reasons that Ang Lee's Wo hu zang long (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), due to released worldwide by Sony early in the New Year, has to be this year's clear favourite - even if it has been entered under the banner of the country perhaps least involved in its making. Indeed, this looks to be very much Asia's year at the Awards, with Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love, representing Hong Kong, the closest challenger.

Sad to say, however, that the best film in the line-up - Roy Andersson's astonishing Sånger från andra våningen (Songs from the Second Floor, Sweden) - is highly unlikely to make it through to the final five, let alone win. A bleak view of a world coming apart at the seams, it is hardly
the kind of feelgood flick to appeal to the Academy voters. But even the remote prospect of Roy Andersson bounding up the steps to do kissy-kissy with the presenters will keep me cheerful well into the New Year.

Published: January 11, 2001

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Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon


In the Mood for Love


Le goût des autres


Glamour


Englar alheimsins

Academy Awards nominations announced on February 13, 2001.

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