Who will bring back the golden statuette for their country?
2016 is another year of disappointment not just for Southeast Asia, but even the Cannes Best Director Hou Hsiao-Hsien's "The Assassin" did not cut its way give Asia a single representation in the Best Foreign Language Oscar (and that should be considered a daring snub). Gripes about lack of diversity aside (#Oscarsowhite), it shouldn't been taken out on this list of nominees that the Academy has chosen to be up for the Oscar.
If it was any compensation, we were glad that a good number of these nominees were from the debut feature of fresh directors, coming from countries which have made it to the Oscar shortlist for the first time. If anything, it shows us that there is still a wide world out there, waiting to be discovered in world cinema.
So here are the five nominees that would be contending for the Best Foreign Language Oscar on 28 February 2016.
Son of Saul (Hungary)
Following a day in the life of Auschwitz prisoner Saul Ausländer, who is a member of a special unit to dispose Jewish corpses after they have been sent to the gas chambers. When he discovers a body believing to belong to his son, Saul seeks to salvage the body and give it a proper Jewish burial, while the fate of his crew hang in the balance under the supervision of the Nazis. Winner of the Grand Prix and FIPRESCI Prize at the Cannes Film Festival where it premiered, this feature debut of Hungarian director László Nemes has been on the lips of everyone since, even without taking the ultimate Palme d'Or. Other than winning over the American film critics, "Son of Saul" has most recently become the first Hungarian film to take the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film; an indicator of its chances at the Oscar, and sometimes meaning that was as far as it will go, depending how agreeable the Academy and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association are feeling this year.
Then again, the Holocaust has been one subject that the Oscar has always been very fond of, and for the revolution in portraying a new aspect of it, we'd say that "Son of Saul" could actually bring home the trophy since the last nomination from the country nine years ago.
Embrace of the Serpent (Colombia)
Told in two different time periods during the 18th century, a German and American scientists are guided by Karamakate, the last surviving member of his tribe, to find a rare and sacred plant in the Amazon jungle.
Third time is truly the charm for director Ciro Guerra to have "Embrace of the Serpent" finally making it to the Oscar shortlist, after having his previous two films submitted for Oscar consideration to no avail. Not a stranger in Cannes for the same previous works by the time "Embrace of the Serpent" took away the Art Cinema Award at the Director's Fortnight last year, this black-and-white exploration adventure has been praised for capturing the spiritual akin to a religious experience on film, but we it represent more for presenting a rarely told story through the eyes of its aboriginal native.
A War (Denmark)
A Danish commander and his company are stationed in Afghanistan during the Afghan War. When a routine mission turns into a losing gun battle against the insurgents, the commander is forced to make a grim decision. Upon returning home, the commander is put on trial for committing war crimes.
If the Holocaust was a favourite subject for the Academy, then war dramas would come in second. That quota is being filled by Danish director Tobias Lindholm's "A War", which carries much of the same attention to detail and authenticity in reenacting tense scenarios as his previous ship-hostage simulation "A Hijacking". Unlike his previous Oscar nominated film "The Hunt" from 2012, "A War" is much closer in tone with his other 2012 outing, "A Hijacking" that it is devoid of any moral tone to frame it for the audience; a feat that requires considerable restraint. However, as for anyone who has seen "A Hijacking" will know, Lindholm is also concerned about the human consequences of the toughest decisions made, and "A War" elevates that toll on a more soul-crushing scale.
Set in World War I at the Wadi Desert in Jordan, Theeb, a Bedouin orphan, and his brother are asked to guide a British officer and an Arab to a well located near an Ottoman railway. Told to remain in the camp by his brother because the trail would be dangerous, Theeb secretly follows them onto a journey that will shape the young boy in the face of the unforgiving deserts.
Jordanian cinema has had many brushes with Hollywood film making over the years; it being one of the most ideal locations where sand is needed in abundance (most recently for "The Martian"), and now it has fully come into form with its first Oscar-nominated film by director Naji Abu Nawar. While much can be said about the truthful performance of its cast which is comprised of actual Bedouin people with little to no acting training, it is director Naji who would be most remembered whenever Jordanian films are mentioned from here on, and where "Theeb" has put it on the map.
Five orphaned sisters in a remote Turkish village are being chastised by their uncle and grandmother, after an act of playful indiscretion with boys. Locked up in their home that almost becomes a prison, the sisters are slowly taught to be married away, but all they yearn for is freedom and an escape from the abuses of the conservative community.
France returns to take its almost customary place out of the slots allotted to this category by making a Turkish film; a practice that is not uncommon, thanks to the strange rules where the film represents wherever the director originates from (Deniz Gamze Ergüven was born in Turkey, but her family emigrated to France soon after).
A feature debut for Deniz, "Mustang" is the only other film in this year's nominees to have hounded "Son of Saul" since they both premiered in Cannes, all the way to the Golden Globes without being able to steal a win from its Hungarian counterpart. This is looking to be a strong go-to for the Academy if they were not keen on giving "Son of Saul" the most prized statuette of them all in their awards collection, if not to award a cruel coming-of-age tale delivered by a phenomenal ensemble cast.
Here are the nominees for the 2016 Oscar Best Foreign Film category.
Cinema Online, 25 January 2016