Oscars wanted: Asian films need not apply

Oscars wanted: Asian films need not apply

In 83 years of Oscar history, Asian films have for the most part gotten the extremely short end of the stick. Here's why
Oscars down on Asian films

Historically, Asian films have been routinely ignored by the Academy Awards. Not counting "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Slumdog Millionaire", Asian films have won a whopping total of four Oscars over the entire history of the Academy Awards dating back to the 1920s. Throw in "Slumdog’s" eight Oscars and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s" four and Asian films have won a total of 16 Oscars.

Even nominations have been few and far in between, and no Asian film won any Oscar between 1986 and 1999 (unless one counts "The Last Emperor" as an Asian film.)

“The Oscars are very much skewed towards their own -- Hollywood and some favored European/global filmmakers," says Udita Jhunjhunwala, film writer, author, critic and India correspondent for Screen International. "They are not global awards and perhaps do not intend to be," she says.

Asia ignored

Akira Kurosawa, regarded as one of the world's greatest filmmakers, took home only one Oscar in 1975 for "Dersu Uzala" in the Best Foreign Language Film category, and one for a lifetime achievment award. "Dersu Uzala" was actually representing the USSR and not Japan, so the accolade doesn't technically count as an Asian film winning an Oscar. 

Andy Lau in Infernal AffairsAndy Lau politely asks for an Oscar in Infernal Affairs.How many Oscars would Kurosawa's movies ("Ran", "Rashomon" to name a few) have won if he had more lobbying power in Hollywood or the support of American audiences? If he had a name like James Cameron or Steven Spielberg? American audiences and subsequently the Academy have to “get it". Many Films often lauded as fantastic and deserving often don’t win the big Oscars, or any Oscars, regardless of whether or not they’re Asian.

For example, “Indian film 'Lagaan' was a great nominee in 2002 but the Americans don’t get cricket and at 224 minutes, it was too long.” Jhunjhunwala said. “Plus the producers would not have had the muscle to bring in a majority of the jury to screenings. I think it’s interesting that Hong Kong film 'Infernal Affairs' did not get an Oscar look-in (it did win 23 awards from various sources) but the Hollywood remake 'The Departed' won 4 Oscars in 2006.”

Interesting indeed. "The Departed" had the marketing muscle, star power, lobbying push of Warner Bros. Pictures, and visibility to hit all of the Oscar marks that "Infernal Affairs" could never match. Give "Infernal Affairs" the same Oscar lobbying push Tokyo Broadcasting System gave 2008's "Departures", and it might have won best Foreign Language Film like "Departures" did.

Film critic and author Tomohiro Machiyama explains, "The main reason why the movie ("Departures") won was because of lobbying. The movie was heavily lobbied by TBS. They did several screenings and invited the Oscar voters in Hollywood, and even drove them from home to the screening theater. They threw a party with the director, producer and main actors. Lots of hospitality. The lobbying is very important.”

Machiyama believes part of the reason Hong Kong and Korean films have been ignored is because they are too violent. Not in the gore-porn "Saw" style, as Korea and Hong Kong make "lots of very good movies about violence like 'Old Boy'. The films are very, very good but too violent and graphic for Hollywood." 

Slumdog Millionaire - a rare exception

In over 80 years of Academy Award ceremonies, "Slumdog Millionaire" is the only Asian movie (though technically "Slumdog Millionaire" is more of a crossover film than an Asian or Indian film) to win the Best Picture Oscar and it easily nabbed the most Oscars of any Asian film. Part of what set "Slumdog Millionaire" apart from the rest was the strong lobbying combined with no strong competition.

“'Slumdog' was about great lobbying by Fox and being in a year when there was no great competition. We all know these awards function on a lobbying system. 'Slumdog' had a strong lobby. Miramax and Dreamworks films usually made the cut because of the money they pump into pre-awards publicity,” says Jhunjhunwala.

Machiyama echoes Jhunjhunwal's statements on Miramax: "In the 90s, Miramax won for 'Shakespeare in Love', which was not that good nor that successful. The best possible contender that year was 'Saving Private Ryan', so everybody just expected it to win. But Miramax spent lots and lots of money Lobbying 'Shakespeare in Love', and finally they won. Its very easy to buy (an Oscar)”, he says.

European preference

America's European cousins across the Atlantic have had a much better record of Oscar nominations and victories than Asia. To put it into perspective, even a fairly obscure non-European country like the Ivory Coast has won one Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, the same as Asian film powerhouse Japan. Japan's award (for "Departures") is also only the second Oscar for Best Foreign Film for an Asian country, adding to Taiwan’s win with "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon". 

Jhunjhunwala says, “EU films have greater success because there is a stronger connection with Hollywood than with Asia. Many Asian films don’t have the money muscle needed to do to get noticed. A lot of EU films get picked up by Hollywood studios who are able to leverage these films.” Whereas Asian films typically do not.

Machiyama has another idea about the Academy's preference for European films, “Hollywood people are mostly white and predominantly Jewish with roots in Europe. They’ve always kind of looked after European films. And the actors (many of whom are Oscar voters) respect the Shakespearean actors,” he says.

Indians and Oscars don't mix

Europe also currently has what Hollywood believes is more of a market for the type of films that generally appeal to the Academy and Western audiences. The Indian film industry caters to a very different set of cultural entertainment values. Jhunjhunwala explains, “Indian filmmakers don’t give that much importance to the Oscars. Sure, its prestigious, but the catchment for Indian films is the large Indian populace and the diaspora. And Hollywood films/international films do not register box office numbers in India unless it’s an 'Avatar', '2012' or 'Spider-Man'. Therefore there is a large gap between what films appeal to the Indian audience and the ones that typically get selected for Oscars.”

Every year each country's official film organization sends a list of movies they would like considered for the Best Foreign Language Film award. The aforementioned lobbying power as well as the cultural values come into play in the Academy selection process. Case in point: “The films that Film Federation of India usually sends up as its official entries to the Oscars typically stir debate as to their merit, and are not necessarily the best choice vis a foreign audience,” she says. 

This does not mean Indian films or film legends have been completely ignored by the Academy. Satyajit Ray won the consolation prize -- an honorary Lifetime Achievement Oscar -- in 1992, after making a mere 37 films and winning 32 Indian National Film Awards given by the Government of India.

Asian Oscar chances moving forward

The quality of Asian film isn't a factor as to why they've fared so poorly over the years. The consistent reasons as to why Asian films have gotten the Oscar cold shoulder at the Academy Awards, are poor lobbying in Hollywood, audience cultural differences between what sells in the East and what sells in the West, and Academy voter preference for U.S.-produced and European films. 

Things could change in regards to the money and lobbying aspect as last years Oscar golden child "Slumdog Millionaire" proved. Produced and lobbied for by Dreamworks, "Slumdog" represented a potential sea-change in how Hollywood approaches the Eastern markets and promotes its content back in Hollywood. It helps that part of Dreamworks US$825 million in recent funding comes from India's Reliance Big Entertainment. The Indian market of around one billion people, many of whom are crazy about movies, is a tough market to shun regardless of audience preference. 

If Asian films can appeal to the Hollywood trends and Western audiences, they also stand a better chance. “'Slumdog Millionaire" was a film that worked given the recessionary mood in the West and the roaring of the East. 'Slumdog' was a film of triumph against the odds -- the underdog film with slick storytelling and technically accomplished, made by a filmmaker with great credentials,” says Jhunjhunwala.

2010's Academy Awards features no nominations for any Asia-produced films. Though films with subjects rooted in Asia have been nominated such as "The Cove" and "Burma VJ" for Documentary Feature, "China's Unnatural Disaster: The tears of Sichuan Province" for Documentary Short, and "Kavi" for Short Film (Live Action).

Unfortunately, Asian films looking for Oscars will have to wait until next year for another shot at the golden man. Maybe "Slumdog Millionaire" didn't make such an impact after all. At least there's always Oscars fashion to stare at.

Want to know who some of Asia's greatest actors of all time are? Then check out Asia's 25 greatest actors of all time.


Chris Anderson is the former associate editor of CNNGo based in Hong Kong and is now senior editor at Huffington Post Media Group.

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