China and South Africa bring a little English to the foreign Oscar conversation

Posted by · 3:00 pm · September 23rd, 2011

We talk about name appeal being a factor in the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar race, but no country this year can boast it to quite the same extent as China: not only is their submission, just announced today, directed by three-time Oscar nominee Zhang Yimou, but it stars reigning Best Supporting Actor champ Christian Bale. If nothing else, the lure of the familiar should be worth a few votes. 

The film in question is “The Flowers of War,” Zhang’s much-anticipated epic set during the Japanese invasion of Nanking in 1937, in which Bale stars as an American priest trapped in a cathedral with a group of schoolchildren and courtesans. As the most expensive production in Chinese film history, the film has a lot riding on it; no one’s seen the finished product yet, but 20 minutes of footage were previewed at the Toronto Film Festival to a strong reception. (The film opens in China in December, which would normally rule it ineligible for consideration, but will have a week-long qualifying run beginning tomorrow.)

If you’re having trouble imagining Bale flaunt his Mandarin skills on screen, don’t trouble yourself: the film’s dialogue is reportedly 60% Mandarin and 40% English, meeting the Academy’s required foreign-language quota, though it’s a slightly cheeky approach. If the film itself delivers, the combination of that accessibility with Bale’s celebrity and Zhang’s track record could give it a serious leg up in the race for a nomination; it’s worth noting that no Chinese film has scored a nomination here since Zhang’s own “Hero” in 2002.

It’ll be interesting to see if a US distributor steps forward to release it this year, thus making it eligible in the general Oscar race. (Remember, if it’s released in 2012 but nominated in the foreign-language category, it won’t be eligible in other categories next year.)

Another country cutting it fine on the language front is South Africa. Today’s news that they’ve submitted young sophomore filmmaker Oliver Hermanus’s “Beauty” (also known by its Afrikaans title “Skoonheid”) greatly pleased me — not only because it’s an excellent film, but because I was concerned it might have too much English dialogue to qualify. Hermanus’s film makes a virtue of the South African characteristic of hopping between languages (English and Afrikaans, in this case) in the space of a single sentence, which makes it tricky to calculate in Academy-friendly percentages.

The film, a substantial formal advance from Hermanus’s highly promising debut “Shirley Adams,” is something a little different from the more issue-based, black-focused films the country has submitted in recent years: a frank, graceful study of repressed sexuality in middle-class Afrikaner society, it stars Deon Lotz in a startling performance as a middle-aged family man consumed by desire for his nephew. It was well-received in the Un Certain Regard strand at this year’s Cannes festival, where it wound up winning the Queer Palme for the festival’s best gay-themed film.

I meant to review this impressive piece of work but got swallowed up in the festival chaos; along with some other submissions, I plan to write it up in more detail soon. As it stands, its explicit sexual content and defiantly downbeat stance could make it a hard sell to many Academy types, but here’s hoping it benefits from the exposure. 

Meanwhile, the Czech Republic (whose “Alois Nebel” is the only animated film in contention so far), Denmark and India also announced their submissions today; here’s the full list as it currently stands:

Albania – “The Forgiveness of Blood”

Austria – “Breathing”

Belgium – “Bullhead”

Bosnia and Herzegovina – “Belvedere”

Brazil – “Elite Squad 2″

Bulgaria – “Tilt”

Canada – “Monsieur Lazhar”

Chile – “Violeta”

China – “The Flowers of War”

Colombia – “The Colors of the Mountain”

Czech Republic – “Alois Nebel”

Denmark – “SuperClasico”

Finland – “Le Havre”

France – “Declaration of War”

Germany – “Pina”

Greece – “Attenberg”

Hong Kong – “A Simple Life”

Hungary – “The Turin Horse”

Iceland – “Volcano”

India – “Adaminte Makan Abu”

Iran – “A Separation”

Ireland – “As If I Am Not There”

Israel – “Footnote”

Japan – “Postcard”

Lebanon – “Where Do We Go Now?”

Lithuania – “Back in Your Arms”

Mexico – “Miss Bala”

Morocco – “Omar Killed Me”

Netherlands – “Sonny Boy”

Norway – “Happy, Happy”

Peru – “October”

Philippines – “The Woman in the Septic Tank”

Poland – “In Darkness”

Portugal – “José and Pilar”

Romania – “Morgen”

Russia – “Burnt by the Sun 2: Citadel”

Serbia – “Montevideo, God Bless You!”

Slovakia – “Gypsy”

South Africa – “Beauty”

South Korea – “The Front Line”

Sweden – “Beyond”

Taiwan – “Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale”

Venezuela – “The Rumble of the Stones”

Vietnam – “Thang Long Aspiration”

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