Foreign Oscar update: 'The Grandmaster,' 'Broken Circle Breakdown,' 'Neighboring Sounds' join race

Posted by · 1:04 pm · September 24th, 2013

We”re in the home stretch of the submissions process for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. With one week to go until the official deadline, we currently have 52 entries – which, to use past years as a yardstick, means we probably have about three-quarters of the final field confirmed. Of course, it”s at this stage that you fall way behind if you turn your back for a day or two, so I”ve got a lot of submissions to catch up on.

First, though, arguably the biggest news in the category over the past few days concerns a film that wasn”t entered. For weeks now, I”d been receiving correspondence about Indian festival hit “The Lunchbox” that implied its selection for the Oscar race was a fait accompli. The romantic comedy, in which a mistaken lunch delivery unites a lonely widower and an unhappy housewife, had everything going for it: a warm critical reception at Cannes and Toronto, crossover audience appeal and a US distribution deal with Sony Pictures Classics.

The Film Federation of India, however, saw things differently, instead submitting multi-stranded drama “The Good Road,” which won Best Gujarati Film at the country”s National Film Awards. The makers of “The Lunchbox” have been quick to voice their outrage at the perceived slight, as have many others. Not having seen either film yet, I can only voice my surprise, but perhaps the Indian selectors are thinking strategically: “The Good Road,” in which a single highway connects the fates of a put-upon truck driver, a middle-class family and a young girl searching for her grandmother, may have its own Academy-friendly merits. Fairly or otherwise, however, India joins France and Japan on the list of countries widely thought to have chosen the “wrong” film this year.

For those who want high-profile films in the race, however, there was good news from Hong Kong, as Wong Kar-wai”s martial arts epic “The Grandmaster” was announced as the country”s submission yesterday. The romantic, visually extravagant film, loosely based on the life story of famed Wing Chun martial artist Ip Man, should already be familiar to most voters, and not just because it opened in the US last month: the Academy hosted a screening of it in July, followed by a Q&A with Wong, as part of their summer tribute to kung fu cinema.

For this and other reasons, some may assume the film has a leg up with voters, but I”m not so sure. Reviews have stabilized since it opened the Berlin Film Festival to a very mixed reception in February, and it”s certainly Wong”s most mainstream film to date – but while some voters might respond to its grand spectacle, others will find it a hard film to penetrate, burdened with subplots and martial arts minutiae that still make it a somewhat esoteric experience. It doesn”t have quite the crossover immediacy of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” or “Hero” (a winner and nominee in this category, respectively), but most agree that it”s not top-drawer Wong either. (Not that it”d help if it was the latter. Hong Kong have only submitted one of the auteur”s films before – 2000″s masterful “In the Mood for Love” – and it got nowhere in the race.) Still, as The Weinstein Company”s only horse in this race so far, it”ll have a lot of campaign muscle behind it.

A far more modest contender that I”m more confident in is Belgium”s submission, “The Broken Circle Breakdown,” a film I”ve regretfully managed to miss at three different festivals – and one that seems to reduce grown men to tears wherever it plays. Felix van Groeningen”s drama about a husband and wife, both Flemish bluegrass musicians, learning to cope with their young daughter”s terminal cancer was a huge domestic hit last year, before making its international debut at the Berlinale. There, it claimed the Audience Award in the festival”s Panorama section; it also won Best Actress and Best Screenplay at Tribeca in spring. I”ve been assured by several colleagues that the film inventively avoids the schmaltzy pitfalls of the disease-of-the-week genre – not that those would necessarily be a drawback in this race, of course. Sight unseen, I”m currently predicting a nomination; I”ll be able to make a more educated guess soon.

Another contender that has been winning hearts on the festival circuit is Canada”s just-announced submission, “Gabrielle.” Louise Archambault”s film is a reputedly gentle romantic drama about two developmentally disabled members of a special-needs choir who fall in love, despite parental opposition from one side; it won the Audience Award at the Locarno Film Festival last month, and also drew warm responses at Toronto a few weeks ago. As such, it”s another savvy submission for Canada, a country that currently has the Midas touch in this category. Their last three submissions – “War Witch,” “Monsieur Lazhar” and “Incendies” – all wound up nominated. Furthermore, only once in the last seven years have they failed to crack the nine-film shortlist. (The unlucky exception? Xavier Dolan”s “I Killed My Mother.”) Could “Gabrielle” get them a fourth consecutive nomination? You have to like its chances.

Two years ago, veteran Polish director Agnieszka Holland scored a nomination for her sobering Holocaust survival tale “In Darkness.” It was the first time she”d competed in the category for her home country, though back in 1985, her film “Angry Harvest” (also a Holocaust drama) landed a nod for what was then West Germany. I”ll leave it to geeks more thorough than I to tell me if this has ever happened before, but Holland can now claim to have represented three different nations in the race over the years, as the Czech Republic has submitted her film “Burning Bush” as their hopeful.

Shown in Eastern Europe as a three-part miniseries from HBO”s European arm, but screened in its full 230-minute format at such festivals as Rotterdam, Karlovy Vary and, most recently, Toronto, “Burning Bush” is the latest in Holland”s long line of modern historical dramas, though this one doesn”t concern WWII: this time, her focus is the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in the 1960s, taking as its narrative impetus the self-sacrifice of Jan Palach, a Prague student who set himself on fire in protest against the invasion, prompting a trial against the Communist regime.

Strong stuff, I”m informed, and reviews have been excellent. But while Holland is a familiar name to Academy members (in addition to those foreign-language bids, she scored a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination for 1991″s “Europa Europa”), I wonder if the near-four-hour film will be too much of a slog for many voters, or if some will take issue with its TV roots. (It worked for “Fanny and Alexander,” mind.)   

Last week, I asked whether France could feasibly submit “Blue is the Warmest Color” for next year”s foreign-language race, despite it being eligible in general categories this year. And it would appear that Brazil has indirectly answered my question by submitting Kieber Mendonca Filho”s excellent “Neighboring Sounds” – a film that had its world premiere at Rotterdam nearly two years ago. (I saw it at IndieLisboa in April last year.)

The film, a haunting not-quite-thriller about the manifold security issues infecting neighbourly relations in a middle-class suburban street in Recife, opened in the US in summer last year. Among other accolades, New York Times critic A.O. Scott placed it on his 2012 Top 10; needless to say, it didn”t trouble the Academy. Strangely enough, however, it didn”t open in Brazil until January, meaning it can be submitted this year. It”s probably too subtle and insidious for the tastes of the branch at large, but this is exactly the kind of daring critics” pet the executive committee was designed to rescue.  

I keep saying that the Berlin Film Festival is prime hunting ground for contenders in this category, and that is further proven by Bosnia and Herzegovina”s submission this year: Danis Tanovic”s “An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker.” (Yes, that”s a real title, even if it does sound like a “Simpsons” parody of Eastern European festival gruel.) It”s an entirely predictable choice, given that a) Tanovic”s “No Man”s Land” won the Oscar for Bosnia in 2001 (beating “Amelie” in the process); and b) “Iron Picker” won the Grand Prix and Best Actor from Wong Kar-wai”s jury in Berlin.

I suspect, however, that the film will have to rest on those laurels. Authentic and affecting as it is, this social-realist drama chronicling the day-to-day existence of a poverty-stricken Romany family – given a documentary infusion by Tanovic”s use of non-pro actors effectively acting out their own lives – is likely too bleak in subject and dour in tone to get very far in this race, unless the executive committee is in a particularly earnest mood.

Rounding out the recent submissions, Russia has given the race its only 3D and IMAX contender (so far) with “Stalingrad,” a WWII epic depicting the eponymous 1942 battle, with a cast that includes German star Thomas Kretschmann (“The Pianist”). With the film not yet released in its home country, critical word has yet to emerge; among the shortlisted films it beat out was another 1942-set war drama, Sergei Loznitsa”s acclaimed “In the Fog.” International critics may carp, but the film was a box office failure at home, so it”s not surprising it was passed over.

South Africa has selected “Four Corners,” a multilingual tale of a teenager drawn into Cape Town”s violent child-gang scene – having won the Oscar for “Tsotsi” eight years ago, they”re clearly hoping for criminal-youth subject matter to strike gold again. Other new entries: Bangladesh”s “Television,” Thailand”s “Countdown,” Slovakia”s “My Dog Killer” and Colombia”s “La Playa DC.”

Check out the updated submissions list here.

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