We’re in the preliminary stages of next year’s Oscar Blitz, with me sitting here eagerly anticipating the official announcement of specialty submissions before the shortlists come out on December 21. Part of that early zeal has included monitoring news feeds (and let’s be honest, Wikipedia) for individual countries to announce their entries for International Feature, in hopes that I can clear as many of them as possible before the shortlist is settled, then hopefully complete the shortlist before nominations come out in January.
Unofficially, we have 93 films vying for the prize, and obviously it’ll be impossible to see them all, owing simply to the fact that films in this category have no obligation to screen in the United States, and most won’t get distribution stateside for months, if at all.
That said, a fair amount have already been shown domestically, and in a few cases, countries have re-submitted films that were disqualified for one reason or another in this year’s competition. As such, I’ve currently seen 11 of the contenders, and will have access to at least four more in short order. It is conceivable that I will see the entire shortlist before it’s announced, though highly unlikely, as there are a few movies that I wouldn’t vote for unless given no other options. Really, the important thing is that the Academy voters see as many of these as possible, as they have an online hub to view all entries, and have to watch a certain minimum (rumored to be 12, but I have no official word on that) to even vote in the preliminary phases.
Most of the entries so far have screened in limited theatrical releases, mostly in independent and arthouse theatres, but a few are available on streaming. Iran’s entry, A Hero, is in theatres now, but Amazon has the distribution rights, and will release it on Prime Video in January. Additionally, three films are currently available on Netflix, with a fourth (The Hand of God, from Italy) coming next month.
So in the interest of expediency and efficiency (and also clearing my backlog so I can get back to focusing on mainstream fare as Awards Season kicks into high gear), I’ll be using this edition of “DownStream” to deliver a triple shot of mini reviews for our international hopefuls available on the big, red “N.” Enjoy!
Prayers for the Stolen – Mexico
Based on the novel of the same name by Jennifer Clement, Prayers for the Stolen is a captivating tale of hope and survival in a relatively lawless land. Three childhood friends, Ana (Ana Cristina Ordóñez González as a child, Marya Membreño as an adult), Maria (Blanca Itzel Pérez and Giselle Barrera Sánchez), and Paula (Camila Gaal/Alejandra Camacho) attend a makeshift school in the rural, mountainous state of Guerrero, where police do patrol in small numbers, but the area is nominally run by drug cartels. Ana’s mother, Rita (Mayra Batalla), watches over all of the girls and takes drastic steps to keep them safe from human traffickers, including cutting Ana and Paula’s hair to make them look like boys. Maria, born with a harelip, is considered safer than the others, so she gets to keep her long hair until her lip is surgically repaired.
As the girls grow up, so too does the urgency with which they must avoid trouble while still trying to enjoy their adolescence. Maria’s brother, Margarito (José Estrada/Julián Guzmán Girón) becomes a love interest for Ana, while at the same time making himself extremely useful to the cartels, the police, and the local strip mining operation in hopes of procuring safety for his loved ones by keeping everyone happy. But as young girls continue to disappear and bodies are recovered of people who defied the cartels, the need for escape becomes more dire. Even working in poppy fields harvesting the literal black tar resin to make heroin does little to ensure a peaceful existence.
The film works on a lot of levels, particularly the intentionally ironic cinematography. Several early scenes are shot in a way to give the audience some form of visual expectation, only to subvert it in the most jarring way possible. The film opens in black, with only the sounds of a woman repeatedly grunting in rhythm. One could infer any number of things, from exercise to lovemaking, just from that blank sound. When the picture comes up, we see Rita and Ana digging in the dirt near their home. Okay, not what we expected, but still interesting. Maybe they’re planting something. Nope. It’s a hole just big enough for Ana to lie inside. The film opens with a child literally digging her own grave. Similarly, a picturesque landscape shot of the mountains, something to establish the mood of the community, is instantly interrupted by a chain reaction of dynamite cutting the side off one of the hills for the mining operation. There are so many of these wonderful shocks that expertly set the tone for the odyssey to come.
I also really enjoyed two of the thematic elements at play throughout, one overt, one more subtle. On the outward side, there’s a tragic irony in the girls’ lives, because they’re growing up while not being allowed to actually grow up. Their hair is cut, their developing chests flattened and hidden by baggy shirts, all to prevent the cartel from seeing them as sexually-developed young women, and therefore ripe for kidnapping. It’s a sort of reverse Peter Pan situation, where these girls want to grow up, to have a normal life, but they are forced to maintain the appearance of a perpetually young boy for their own safety.
On the more meta side of things, the film works as a profile of the very people who desperately need the help of first world nations, but are denied it due to the very danger they’re escaping. Rita’s husband is living in the U.S. during the film, occasionally sending money home, but is rarely in contact. Rita has been trying to arrange a way for her and Ana to join him stateside for years, but nothing seems to work, and the increased threat of the cartel is forcing her hand. Yet we in the audience know that if they are to survive, they’ll likely have to enter this country illegally, branding themselves alongside the very criminals they’re fleeing. There is no process for them to “wait in line,” and if they present themselves for asylum, the threat of cartel violence may not be enough to persuade a judge to let them stay, mostly because of the racist presumption of Mexican immigrants as being involved with those same cartels. When it comes time to leave their home, it’s very possible that Ana and her friends will be going straight from one Hell to another, and there’s a legitimate dilemma for a while as to which fate is worse.
This is a tremendous exploration of youth persevering despite the harshest of realities. It’s well shot, very well acted, and politically poignant. It has all the earmarks of a true International Feature contender.
The Tambour of Retribution – Saudi Arabia
This was apparently supposed to be Saudi Arabia’s entry for the category this year, but an issue with the format in which it was delivered caused it to be disqualified, so Scales was submitted instead. This time, all the t’s are dotted and i’s are crossed, so it gets a chance to shine.
The first thing to note is that there’s a racial dynamic at play, with the film focusing on black Saudis in a poor neighborhood in Riyadh. It’s a little bit hard to see what overall effect it has on the proceedings, as much of the film is left within the context of internal Saudi life, and not much is explained for an outside audience. That said, it is striking at times to see similar internal strife, slum living, and insular “no snitching” rules among the characters to those we have here and in other developed countries.
The story is a basic star-crossed lovers plot between Daiel (Faisal Al Dokhei, who won Best Actor at the Cairo Film Festival for this performance) and Shama (Adwa Fahad). Daiel wants to marry Shama, but both are bound by expectations from their family lineage. Daiel is the son of a “swordsman,” which in modern times means an executioner, and his uncle demands that he take up his father’s sword and profession in order to receive his inheritance. Shama wishes to become a dressmaker and fashion designer, but her parents (Rawya Ahmed and Abdulateif Saud) want her to join the family band as an organ player.
Performing music is a touchy subject in Saudi Arabia, and in some areas it’s strictly regulated as a taboo, which is why both Daiel and Shama don’t want her to join. It also doesn’t help that Daiel’s uncle (Abdullah Elfaki) is very conservative and refuses Shama as a bride for Daiel if she even associates with music. However, the rub here is that Shama’s family plays at weddings – and has an upcoming gig with a noble family that is supposed to pay handsomely – in order to raise “blood money” for her cousin Surur (Shabib Alkhaleefah). Surur is on the equivalent of Death Row in prison for murdering another young man in defense of Shama, to whom he was originally promised to marry. The term, “blood money” is literally a form of compensation for the victim’s family to avert the execution. In the eyes of Saudi law, one way or the other, there must be payment for the murder.
Thus we have our paradox. Daiel wants Shama, but fears she may want Surur. If she performs, she may be able to save Surur, but it would mean not being able to marry Daiel, even if that’s what she wants. On the other hand, Daiel doesn’t want to be a government killer, and if he takes the job to appease his uncle, he may have to be the one to carry out Surur’s death sentence if Shama’s family can’t come up with the blood money. Add in Daiel’s jealousy, and there’s a chance he’ll take the job just to kill Surur, thus removing the last obstacle to marrying Shama, but he knows she’ll never forgive or love him if he does.
There’s some intriguing stuff at work here, even for a simple story. The problem is, it’s goddam boring. As I said, a lot is left to an understanding of Saudi law and culture, so any nuance is lost to an international audience. As such, we’re left to just view the performances and follow the dialogue as best we can. Some things make sense, others don’t. But even in the film’s best moments, the performances outside of Daiel and Shama are wooden and rote. Part of this may be on accident, part of it may be due to cultural and legal restrictions on content from the Saudi government. From what little I know, I got the feeling that this film was progressive, perhaps even daring by Saudi standards, a country where a few years ago women weren’t even allowed to drive cars, much less vote. But as a piece of entertainment, it falls a bit flat, and I have a feeling that in such a large field, it’ll be left behind as voters find more fare that aligns with their sensibilities.
Zero to Hero – Hong Kong
If you’re a sports fan, you might remember the emotional speech Kevin Durant gave when he was named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player in 2014. Holding back tears, Durant recounted the rough life he had growing up, and how his mother always sacrificed to make sure he and his siblings had a chance at a better future. Completely choked up, he ended his dedication by telling his mom, “You’re the real MVP,” and she was given a standing ovation. It’s one of the most beautiful and honest tributes in modern sports history, and seven years later, it’s still hard not to well up just a wee bit watching it.
Now, imagine that brief moment of love stretched to nearly two hours and filled to the brim with just about every cheesy sports movie cliché there is. That’s Hong Kong’s entry, Zero to Hero.
The film is about So Wa Wai, a Paralympic athlete born with cerebral palsy who grew up to not only compete for Hong Kong, but become its first gold medalist, winning several more over the course of his career. That in itself is an amazing story, and one worth exploring. Instead, what we got was a completely over-the-top “inspirational” movie that feels like it was rejected from the Hollywood machine for being too mawkish even for it.
Chung-hang Leung stars as Wa Wai, who spends the bulk of the film hitting the same beats as Forrest Gump with no hint of irony. The initial inability to walk, the slow slurred speech, the unrequited love for a friend, and the undying devotion to his mother all come into play, and that’s before he starts RUN-NIN’. I can’t speak to the actor’s skill, because I don’t know if he’s actually disabled in any way. If he is, then fine, he does what he’s supposed to do within his abilities. If he isn’t, then there’s a significant portion of the population (in this country, at least) that would find his performance insulting to those with handicaps. I’m not one of those super woke types who says only people belonging to certain demographics can play them, because I believe in this weird new thing called “acting.” But setting that aside, if he’s not disabled, then I just dock him major points for a one-note performance that looks like it’s just mimicking a stereotype rather than bringing any effort or nuance to the proceedings.
So’s mother, played by Sandra Ng, is straight out of a Lifetime movie. She’s that ever-doting mother who sacrifices everything while still pushing her son to be the best. This includes inserting painfully faux-inspirational lines like, “They’ll never treat you as an ordinary person, so be an extraordinary person,” and changing the standard “On your mark, get set, go” race start phrase to a mantra for Wa Wai of “Eyes on your mom, get set, go,” which is just diabetes in script form.
The story follows the standard sports movie arc. People doubt Wa Wai, but his mother persists. A coach (Louis Cheung) gives him a chance. Wa Wai shows enough potential to bump the hot shot athlete out of his preferred position. He wins. He becomes a national hero. He keeps training and gets even better (including outrunning a train, which even if it happened, just no). He becomes disillusioned. He’s exploited by moneyed powers. He loses his touch and has a basic third act conflict with both his mother and brother (Locker Lam). They reconcile, and he goes out on top. It’s more formulaic than 2+2=4.
Meanwhile, every trope is thrown out there in hopes of salvaging this dumpster fire, but instead it almost feels like a self-aware joke. Slow-motion shots are thrown in more times than a Zack Snyder wet dream. The score swells every time So rounds a corner. Whenever he throws up a #1 finger salute, he might as well be screaming, “Yo, Adrian!” The credits include a power ballad that would sound like a bad country song if it wasn’t in Cantonese.
And in the midst of all this, any legitimate drama is eschewed. It’s literally noted in the film that So’s parents had a second child – Kin Wai – basically so that Wa Wai would have someone to take care of him when they’re gone, and they treat him like a commodity. The mother actually gives Wa Wai the beef from a hamburger to help him build protein and muscle mass, leaving the bread and cheese for Kin Wai. When the father gets injured, the mom tells Kin Wai to quit the basketball team and take a job to help support the family while Wa Wai trains, even though Kin Wai is actually on the soccer team.
That’s fucked up. There’s a real conflict here that needs development. In her efforts to promote her special son to continue succeeding, she actively ignores and sidelines her other son, to the point of extreme angst and detachment. Is it ever addressed? Apart from one pissy line from Kin Wai at the beginning of the third act, no. In fact, when Wa Wai has his final triumph in the film’s conclusion, Kin Wai is back home cheering all the way while sitting next to a shrine of their dead grandfather, acting like he believed in his brother all along. With all the cliché stuff going on, why would the film abandon the one actual bit of drama it had set up? It makes no sense.
From a production aspect, the film looks fine enough, though the CGI on the various Olympic venues is a bit too shiny to be believable. But really, this is just a mess. It feels like a made-for-TV movie that somehow got promoted to a theatrical run by sheer force of will on the idea of celebrating a national inspiration. But it’s just a maudlin trope fest, in no way satisfying apart from a few decent production values. If this is Hong Kong’s best, I think it would have been better to sit this year out.
Join the conversation in the comments below! Have you seen these films? Are you excited to? Do you think any of them have a shot at winning the Oscar? Let me know!
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