Asian Movies that Made Academy Awards History
The 88th Academy Awards are just over a week away, and with them, all matter of chatter. Statistical speculation, film biz gossip, polemical editorials, general indifference, critical backlash – ladies and gents, it’s Oscar season!
Every year, the Academy’s Best Foreign Film section brings an opportunity for international cinema talents to have their works presented on one of the biggest stages in American moviemaking.
Like them or loathe them, the Oscars, as America’s most publicized cinematic awards fest, maintain an undeniable cultural cachet with the mainstream. A nomination, or better, yet a win, remains the kind of “bump” that foreign films, more than most, could surely use in the American marketplace.
While no Asian productions made the oft-debated Oscar cut this year, some familiar names were submitted for consideration. Hong Kong pitched director Dante Lam‘s bicycle drama TO THE FORE. Taiwan offered widely-praised arthouse wuxia THE ASSASSIN, from Hou Hsiao-hsien. South Korea rolled out uberprestige pic THE THRONE – alas, that film will have to go without an Oscar for its ten-story trophy case.
Without further ado, we present the forty-five Asian movies that earned nominations for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film.
1. THE BURMESE HARP [Dir. Kon Ichikawa]
The Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film originated in 1956. Iconic Italian auteur Federico Fellini’s carnival drama LA STRADA beat out a field that included THE BURMESE HARP, the first Japanese film nominated by the Academy.
A humanist World War II story offering the perspective of Japanese soldiers, HARP was one of the inaugural films nominated in the Foreign Film category. Director Kon Ichikawa, who revisited the World War II terrain with FIRES ON THE PLAIN several years later, directed a color remake of HARP in 1985.
2. MOTHER INDIA [Dir. Mehboob Khan]
A year after THE BURMESE HARP, Mehboob Khan’s Bollywood spectacular broke ground for India. The epic drama, clocking in at nearly three hours, chronicles the life of Rahda, a woman who fights through poverty and societal corruption to become the beacon of an impoverished village. INDIA, a groundbreaking moment for Bollywood cinema, lost narrowly to reigning champ Fellini and his humanist tale of street prostitution, NIGHTS OF CABIRIA.
3. IMMORTAL LOVE [Dir. Keisuke Kinoshita]
In the 1960s, the influence of foreign film in America grew to unprecedented levels, with Japanese cinema experiencing an influx of big-name auteurs. In 1961, the prolific Keisuke Kinoshita (director of CARMEN COMES HOME, Japan’s first color film) nabbed an Oscar nom for the country with IMMORTAL LOVE, the tale of a family’s hopes and tragedies over thirty years.
At the 1961 Academy Awards, THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY, directed by Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish auteur who became one of the most iconic names in ’60s arthouse film, defeated IMMORTAL LOVE.
4. TWIN SISTERS OF KYOTO [Dir. Noboru Nakamura]
Two young women come together and become friends through the years, neither realizing they were sisters separated at birth, in this 1963 Oscar nominee from Japan. KYOTO was defeated by another Federico Fellini film, the strange, widely hailed filmmaking yarn 8 1/2.
5. WOMAN IN THE DUNES [Dir. Hiroshi Teshigahara]
A surreal odyssey of temptation in the desert, WOMAN IN THE DUNES took home a prize at Cannes and became a defining work for Teshigahara. DUNES remains a benchmark of an era when the lines of narrative and avant-garde cinema blurred and blew audiences away. Even the historically stodgy Oscars were following suit, slipping tabs, and journeying into the abstract.
6. SALLAH [Dir. Ephraim Kishon]
Israel entered the Best Foreign Film ring with 1964’s SALLAH. Starring legendary entertainer Chaim Topol (of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF fame) as the titular family man, the film follows the life of a Jewish immigrant adjusting to life in Israel. SALLAH was the debut film of popular literary satirist Ephraim Kishton.
SALLAH and WOMAN IN THE DUNES lost to YESTERDAY, TODAY, AND TOMORROW. The collection of comedy vignettes, part of the Commedia all’italiana phase that was experiencing popularity at the time, starred Fellini collaborator Marcello Mastroianni and superstar Sophia Loren.
7. KWAIDAN [Dir. Masaki Kobayashi]
The director of such highly acclaimed films as the HUMAN CONDITION trilogy and HARAKIRI, Masaki Kobayashi broke into the Oscar ranks with this striking anthology of ghost stories. The regularly horror-averse Academy couldn’t deny the opulence of Yoshio Miyajima’s cinematography, raising campfire stories to the level of cinematic poetry. However, the film ultimately lost in 1965 to Czechoslovakian Holocaust drama THE SHOP ON MAIN STREET.
8. PORTRAIT OF CHIEKO [Dir. Noboru Nakamana]
Seemingly forgotten today by American audiences alongside some of his more vaunted peers, Noboru Nakamana was actually the first Japanese filmmaker nominated twice for Best Foreign Film, following TWIN SISTERS OF KYOTO. PORTRAIT OF CHIEKO follows two artists who mix their work with their hearts. At the Oscars, CHIEKO lost to CLOSELY WATCHED TRAINS, a Czechoslovakian comedy directed by Jiri Menzel.
9. THE POLICEMAN [Dir. Ephraim Kishon]
THE POLICEMAN stars popular mime Shaike Ophir as a kind cop, forced out of work, who befriends a series of demonstrators, crooks, and troubled souls. The film became Israeli’s second to be nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, joining Kishon’s SALLAH from several years earlier.
10. DODES’KA-DEN [Dir. Akira Kurosawa]
Akira Kurosawa’s tale of poverty on Japan’s outskirts may not have been the most acclaimed work of the hugely influential director’s career, but in 1971, it became his first to crack into the Academy’s Best Foreign Film field. POLICEMAN and DODES’KA-DEN lost to THE GARDEN OF THE FINZI-CONTINIS, directed by Italian legend Vittorio de Sica.
11. I LOVE YOU ROSA [Dir. Moshé Mizrahi]
Kicking off a series of three nominations in the category, director Moshe Mizrahi’s third film, I LOVE YOU ROSA, follows an 1800s romance set in Palestine – between a young boy and his his sister-in-law. It was a year of the offbeat for the Foreign Language category: ROSA lost to the great Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel’s surreal odyssey, DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE.
12. THE HOUSE ON CHELOUCHE STREET [Dir. Moshé Mizrahi]
Mizrahi was goin’ back to back in ’73 with THE HOUSE OF CHELOUCHE STREET. Set in 1947 Tel Aviv, the film chronicles the lives of a Jewish immigrant family whose teenage son becomes involved in a resistance movement against the British government. CHELOUCHE STREET was defeated at the Oscars by French auteur Francois Truffaut’s film industry comedy, DAY FOR NIGHT.
13. SANDAKAN NO. 8 [Dir. Kei Kumai]
Directed by the late Kei Kumai, SANDAKAN NO. 8 took an unflinching look at World War II female prostitution. A young journalist investigating 20th century Asian brothels meets an elderly woman, setting off a flashback journey into abuse, betrayal, and brothels.
*14. DERSU UZALA [Dir. Akira Kurosawa]*
1975, Soviet Union
A co-production between the Soviet Union and Japan, this Shakespeare adaptation was a landmark for Akira Kurosawa. He took home his first golden statue in the Best Foreign Film category, and joined Noboru Nakamana as the second Japanese filmmaker to have two films nominated for Best Foreign Film.
15. OPERATION THUNDERBOLT [Dir. Menahem Golan]
Today, ’80s film production company the Cannon Group is best known for their lovably (or hate-ably) schlocky yarns like THE APPLE, DEATH WISH 3, and COBRA (starring Sylvester Stallone as a crime-fighter named Marion Cobretti). However, as chronicled in last year’s incredible doc ELECTRIC BOOGALOO, there was a lot more to this group’s repertoire than just boobs, bazookas, and crass commercialism.
Not only did the Cannon Group produce esteemed auteur John Cassavetes’ masterful LOVE STREAMS, but partner Menahem Golan directed an Oscar nominee. OPERATION THUNDERBOLT chronicles a 1976 hijacking at Entebbe Airport in Uganda, featuring singer Yehoram Gaon as a military leader, alongside certified madman Klaus Kinski as a terrorist.
At the Oscars, THUNDERBOLT had the misfortune of crossing paths with Mohse Mizrahi, who had a new French production, MADAME ROSA, that won a golden statue.
16. KAGEMUSHA [Dir. Akira Kurosawa]
With financial assistance from Hollywood heavyweights/Kurosawa diehards Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, KAGEMUSHA’s Sengoku warfare continued to establish the filmmaker’s legacy as an international film icon as a new decade dawned, setting the stage for his 1985 King Lear epic RAN.
Alas, KAGEMUSHA couldn’t keep Kurosawa’s Oscar streak rolling; it lost to MOSCOW DOES NOT BELIEVE IN TEARS, a Russian drama directed by Vladimir Menshov.
17. MUDDY RIVER [Dir. Kôhei Oguri]
In this black-and-white coming of age tale, two boys living along the Osaka river become fast friends. One of them, though, hides dark secrets about the true nature of his family’s business. MUDDY RIVER lost the Oscar to the Hungarian drama MEPHISTO, starring Klaus Maria Brandauer as an actor who sells his soul to the Nazi party.
18. BEYOND THE WALLS [Dir. Uri Barbash]
This 1984 film took a look inside the confines of an Israeli Prison Service jail. WALLS follows the lives of an armed robber, terrorist, Israeli Defense Forces officer, and popular musician who cross paths inside the jailhouse walls.
19. SALAAM BOMBAY! [Dir. Mira Nair]
In 1988, filmmaker Mira Nair (MONSOON WEDDING) burst onto the international film scene with SALAAM BOMBAY! The film follows the story of adolescent circus worker Krishna, who enters a seedy world of drugs, prostitution, and violence in a Mumbai red light district. Winning awards across the world, BOMBAY! made Nair a major name on the worldwide circuit. SALAAM BOMBAY lost the 1988 Oscar to Billie August’s PELLE THE CONQUEROR, a Denmark drama following the life of a boy and his father, played by Max von Sydow.
20. JU DOU [Dir. Zhang Yimou and Yang Fengliang]
1990 saw Asian cinema history made with JU DOU, the first Chinese movie nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. Starring actress Gong Li in a role that made her an international name, JU DOU continued the collaboration Gong and up-and-coming star director Zhang Yimou began on 1987’s RED SORGHUM. And they weren’t done making Oscar noise yet.
21. RAISE THE RED LANTERN [Dir. Zhang Yimou]
A year after JU DOU made Chinese film history, Zhang Yimou and Gong Li returned to the Best Foreign Film ballot with RAISE THE RED LANTERN. Banned in China for its tale of a beautiful, nineteen-year-old woman forced into a dominating marriage to wealthy Master Chen, LANTERN stunned audiences worldwide with its subversive storyline and stunningly vibrant use of three-strip Technicolor.
22. FAREWELL, MY CONCUBINE [Dir. Chen Kaige]
A banner year for Asian cinema, 1993 saw three Asian productions nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. Zhang Yimou’s Fifth Generation counterpart, Chen Kaige, found his way onto the ballot with 1993’s FAREWELL, MY CONCUBINE. The film, involving a love triangle between two Peking opera actors and a woman over five decades, became the first Chinese-language picture ever to take home Cannes’ Palme d’Or.
Part Two – Wednesday, February 23
Part Three – Friday, February 26