Editor's Note: The Academy Award nominations for best foreign-language film may say more about the U.S. than they do about the countries where the movies were made. New America Media asked U.S. ethnic media editors about the films that didn't make the Oscars list, but made waves in their home countries.
This year's favorite for the Best Foreign Language Oscar depicts a couple battling an emotional separation and the theocracy that governs them. Set in Tehran, the film's warm reception in the United States says more about us -- and our unease with the wider world - than it does about Iran.
Asghar Farhadi's “A Separation” vindicates our view of Iranians on some level, which is likely why it resonates with the Academy.
But what about the films that don't? The past year saw a slew of movies that made waves with audiences in their home countries for reasons that have nothing to do with us.
“Cater to Hollywood, Lose Self.” That was the headline of a recent op-ed in China, in reference to Zhang Yimou's latest endeavor, “The Flowers of War.” Almost by design, writes Zhu Xudong, the film was made with an eye to a global audience, meaning, the Academy.
“In the past few years, a number of Chinese filmmakers have worked hard to show that they too are worthy of the Hollywood title,” writes Zhu. “Pouring in more money, drawing bigger names, and relying on special effects, have added up to a string of cinematic failures.”
“The Flowers of War” is one of them, he says. The film, China's most expensive to date, failed to win over fans at home and was derided by American critics as a blatant paean to Chinese nationalism.
What did do well in China? Zhu notes that despite its low budget and obscure cast, “Love Is Not Blind” by newcomer Teng Huatao opened to packed houses from Beijing to Shanghai, topping the 20 million mark in ticket sales on its first day.
A romantic comedy about the relationship between a young gay man (played by Wen Zhang) and his female colleague, the film has sparked intense discussion among women in China.
“Why are women falling for the lead male character?” is the headline of a recent posting on a popular blog site that caters to Chinese women. “It's because they see [in Wen's character] the possibility for an intimacy not even shared with female friends.”
Lisa Tsering writes on entertainment for India West, which covers the South Asian community in the United States.
Describing India's Oscar submission, “Abu, Son of Adam,” as “well-meaning but ponderous,” she says the film that has captured the most attention among Indian critics and fans alike is Milan Luthria's “The Dirty Picture.”
The film, based loosely on the life of the late actress Silk Smitha (played by Vidya Balan), has won all the major industry awards in India, Tsering says.
Writing for the online news site First Post, author M. Svairini connects the film's subject matter to recent protests in the southern Indian state of Karnataka after several lawmakers there were discovered watching porn on their mobile devices.
“Today in India, hypocrisy is the only moral constant,” says Srivani, who describes himself in his byline as the author of online “naughty stories.”
Taking issue with India's sexual taboos, Srivani quotes from the film's lead protagonaist. “You call me ghatia, sexy, dirty. … But it's you who make sex films, sell them, watch them, distribute them so others can watch, even give awards for them.”
No awards were forthcoming for Korea's “The Crucible,” by Hwang Dong Hyuk. What the film did do was unleash a firestorm of anger and unease over its graphic depiction of the real-life molestation of children at a school for the deaf in the southern city of Gwangju from 2000 to 2005.
“I expected the film would generate discussion and debate, but I didn't think the response would be this quick and explosive,” said Hwang in an interview after the film's release. “The growing repulsion and rage that people feel every time they hear about such injustices seem to have come to a boil with my movie.”
It's clearly not Oscar material, though the subject matter's similarity to recent events at Penn State may connect with American audiences.
Korea's official submission to the Oscar committee, “Frontline,” tells the story of South Korea's ongoing conflict with North Korea from the perspective of soldiers on the ground. Like Zhang's film, it conceals more than it reveals, offering international audiences the heroic narrative of a country rising from the ashes.
Forget the dirty laundry, it says. We'd rather you not see that.
Which brings us to Gerardo Naranjo's “Miss Bala,” about the true story of a beauty queen recruited by Mexico's drug cartels. Described in the Huffington Post as a “tense, dark, and realistic meditation” on the violence engulfing that country, “Miss Bala” failed to make the shortlist of films up for contention in this year's Oscars.
“It was a surprise,” says Josep Parera, entertainment editor with the Spanish-language papers La Opinion and La Vibra, who adds that such films are rarely a hit with Latino moviegoers who tend to prefer Hollywood blockbusters to grim portrayals of what, for some, is an all too familiar reality.
He adds that Brazil's “Tropa de Elite 2” made a strong showing in the box office there, an “impressive” action flick that nevertheless “lacks the political touch required to get a nomination in the [Oscars'] Foreign Language race.”
If there's a film that does pack a political punch, says Ahmed Tharwat, it's “Microphone,” by Egyptian filmmaker Ahmad Abdallah, whose own real-life experience informs much of the plot.
The film revolves around Khaled, a young man who returns to Egypt after studying abroad in the U.S. and immediately senses a personal disconnect from the many changes that have swept across his homeland.
“It's a movie about any Egyptian who has lived abroad,” says Tharwat, who hosts the weekly Arab-language program BelAhdan on Minneapolis TV. Released in 2010, its premier in Cairo was slated for Jan. 25 of last year, coinciding with the first day of Egypt's revolution.
Describing it as “prophetic,” Tharwat says the film explores Egypt's resistant youth as they fight for recognition from a government staunchly opposed to their calls for justice and equality.
It also gets into the “darker side of the revolution,” he says.
In Iran, that revolution has so far been kept at bay, though the country remains at the forefront of our collective unease. As talk of war grows louder in Washington, on Feb. 26 the film academy will announce its decision. Whether it bridges our separation is another question.
Additional reporting by Summer Chiang, Viji Sundaram, Elena Shore and Suzanne Manneh.
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