Tuesday, December 14, 2004

The Overture to Oscars

Thailand's submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the 77th Academy Awards is The Overture, a historical drama by director Itthisoontorn Vichaitak.

The biggest question this begs is why The Overture and not Tropical Malady, which played the Cannes Film Festival and won a jury prize? The answer has to do with the process of choosing which film to send to the Oscars, something I still don't understand. The film industry or a body overseeing the film industry of each country makes this decision. And in Thailand, the process favors the mainstream companies and the Culture Ministry. So an indie filmmaker like Malady's Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who has to go outside Thailand to find backers, is clearly out of the loop.

The decision to send The Overture particularly smacks as work by the Culture Ministry and Thai government, which absolutely fell in love with the film when it came out in 2003. Ever eager to promote its vision of Thai culture -- traditional, chaste, polite -- I can see why The Overture appeals. The epic story is about a Royal court xylophonist, following his career from the late 1800s to the Japanese occupation of the 1940s. A crucial scene involves a xylophone duel. It's a rich display of traditional Thai classical music, but overall the film is overly melodramatic and bland.

Contrast this with Tropical Malady, a contemporary look at the Thai countryside and the romance between a soldier and a local boy. But then the film breaks off into a second part in which the soldier is alone in a foreboding jungle, searching for a lost man but is dogged by the ancient spirit of a tiger god. Though the second part has to do with an old folk tale and is a fine example of Thai culture, it's the lighthearted romantic comedy of the first part that likely turned off the government, squeamish about putting a gay story out there for everyone in the Academy to see.

So the lacklustre Overture will be up against such powerhouse films as Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers, The Sea Inside by Spain's Alejandro Amènabar or Les Choristes by Christophe Barratier from France.

In all, there are 49 countries vying for the foreign-language Oscar. Among them is Malaysia, which submitted an entry for the first time. Saw Teong Hin's tragic romance, A Legendary Love, is the most expensive film ever made in the Malaysia. The film is also known as The Princess of Mount Ledang, which was shown at the recent International Film Festival of India.

(Via Rotten Tomatoes forums, cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

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