Adrien Brody and Tim Robbins prop up China’s Oscar hopes in ‘Back to 1942’

Posted by · 8:40 am · October 7th, 2013

When the deadline for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar submissions passed last week, it seemed odd that China – the last major filmmaking nation not yet in the race – hadn”t submitted a film yet. As it turns out, they”d entered one on September 29; national holidays had simply prevented the announcement. And for the second time in three years, China has looked to Hollywood names to give them a boost in the race: this year”s selection, “Back to 1942,” which was released Stateside last year, features Oscar-winning actors Adrien Brody and Tim Robbins in its otherwise Chinese ensemble.

Set during the Second Sino-Japanese War, the historical drama is directed by Feng Xiaogang, who represented his country in the race three years ago with the earthquake melodrama “Aftershock.” (A record-breaking smash at home, that rather overwrought blockbuster didn”t impress the Academy sufficiently to make the January shortlist.) Feng”s latest is another natural disaster epic, portraying the widespread droughts that plunged many provinces into famine in the titular year, just as the country was being attacked by Japanese forces. I could be wrong, of course, but I”m not expecting a lot of subtlety here. 

The film centers on the plight of a once-wealthy landlord (played by Zhang Guoli) and his family, brought to their knees by the famine. Robbins plays a priest providing shelter to the displaced; Brody plays TIME correspondent Theodore H. White.

The film premiered at the Rome Film Festival last November, and opened both in China and the US shortly afterward. Reviews have not exactly been stellar: Variety critic Jay Weissberg’s remark that the film is composed mostly of “generic suffering and a few big yet uninvolving fighter-jet strafings” seems a typical view among the English-speaking contingent. (For those who want numbers, its Metacritic average is 41.)

In choosing “Back to 1942,” China is taking a similar tack to the one they tried three years ago by submitting Zhang Yimou’s tepidly reviewed WWII epic “The Flowers of War,” which starred Christian Bale in the leading role. Some pundits thought the film’s big-name value would be enough to get it onto the shortlist, but was likely too turgid to impress either the general branch voters or the executive committee.

If that film couldn’t make the grade, I see little hope for this one, meaning the Chinese are likely to continue their decade-long dry spell in this category. Only twice has China ever been nominated — most recently with 2002’s “Hero” — and they’ve never won.

As far as I’m aware, the Academy has yet to release the finalised, vetted longlist of submissions in the category, though it’s unlikely to be significantly different from the one on our Contenders page. Other countries to have submitted since our last update include Ecuador (“Porcelain Horse”), Estonia (“Free Range”) and Uruguay (“Anina”), bringing the current total to 70 — one short of last year’s record number. Check ’em out here.

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