Will Singapore ever win an Oscar Best Foreign Film Award?

This Sunday, the 86th Academy Awards will be announced and the world of film, with its ardent fans, will be celebrating (and lamenting) losses and wins. Explanation for this is somewhat needless; the Oscars (pet name for the Academy Awards – a disputed title with unresolved history but for the sake of this article be used interchangeably) is undeniably one of the most prestigious awards for film; it does for film what the Grammys do for music and Tonys do for theatre. And awards, even in domains where quality is subjective, such as art, do much for the human reward system, motivating film-makers to create better works in bid to win the esteem titled of nominee or winner of said prize.

The Oscars were first given out in 1929, and the ceremony has been broadcasted subsequently from 1930. There are five nominees in each category, and there are up to 25 categories, of which the Best Foreign Film Award which Singapore has contested for will be further analyzed in this article. Films which call themselves Academy award nominees are also recognized to have been submitted from 1956 onwards as there were no nominees from 1947 to 1955 when there was only a single wining Best Foreign Film per year.

Nominees for the Best Foreign Film category are determined through a two-step process which sees several hundred Los Angeles based Academy members screen the original submissions and pick the top six, then three additional selections are voted by the Academy’s Foreign Language film award executive committee, leading to a shortlist of nine films, which will be announced to the public. At a later date, these nine films will be narrowed down to five nominees, earning the spot as contenders for the award.

A foreign language film is defined as a feature length motion picture produced outside the United States of America with a predominantly non-English dialogue track. Singapore geographically distant from the States, with its four official languages finds itself contending for Best Foreign Film award due to obvious reasons. Having submitted seven films since 1959, Singapore had yet to pick up a nomination. Most recently, Ilo Ilo by Anthony Chen which won the Golden Horse award for Best Picture, undisputedly Singapore’s best bet in so far, failed to make nomination as well. Ironically, it had inched out The Grandmaster for the Golden Horse Award, but The Grandmaster managed to get shortlisted for the Oscar.



So, what are the chances of Singapore ever winning a Best Foreign Film Oscar? We look in a few directions. First, looking at how Asian films have performed through the years, as well as the type of foreign films which have won at the Oscars might help us understand this better.

Out of sixty-five awards handed out by the Academy since 1947 to foreign films, fifty-two have gone to European films, five to Asian films, three to African and three to films from the Americas. French, Italian, German language films take top spots for having the highest nominations in the sixty-five year span. By rule of probability, it comes to no surprise that the Italian and French language films consist of a large portion of winning entries at ten out of sixty five and thirteen out of sixty five submissions respectively.

Perhaps due to a slower start in participation (other than Japan), Asian films from countries such as China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea have not had much of a presence in the nominations list. Japan heads the Asian film pack with twelve nominations and four wins having actively participated right from the beginning of the Academy Awards and Taiwan lags behind at one win in 2000. The most recent win by an Asian country, Departures by Japan in 2009 is a Japanese drama film which concerns the historic ceremony of mortification. Not surprisingly, many other winners and nominees of the BFF have also been dramas encompassing elements of history. Could this possibly be a winning genre?

Here is more food for thought. What we have here are two tables describing the language and genre of films which got nominated or won, for these six years

Language of nominated and winning films for the Academy’s BFFA from 2007 to 2012
Language
Nominated
Winners
German
13.3%
16.67%
Russian
3.3%

Hebrew
9.9%

Polish
6.6%

Mongolian
3.3%

Japanese
3.3%
16.67%
Spanish
13.3%
16.67%
French
23.3%
16.67%
Danish
6.6%
16.67%
Greek
3.3%

Persian
3.3%
16.67%
Dutch
3.3%

Norwegian
3.3%

Arabic
3.3%


Nominated and winning films’ genres for the Academy’s BFFA from 2007 to 2012
Film Genre
Nominated
Winner
Drama
70%
83.3%
Historical/Epic
10%

War
3.3%

Crime
10%
16.7%
Biopic
3.3%

Documentary
3.3%


From the above findings, French language films have been the most popular nominee in the past six years. Also, although film genres overlap (e.g.: crime films are sometimes sub-categories of dramas), the above classification has been done noting the general story plot as well as the category its film-makers listed it under. Therefore, the drama film genre is undisputedly the most common genre nominated for the BFF. This observation is similar to that of critics of the Best Picture Award; that dramas, non-fiction war films and biopics generally perform better for such competitions.

To get more of an industry viewpoint, we spoke to Juan Foo, who has made and produced several Singapore films and was part of the Singapore film resurgence in the 1990s. According to him, the Oscars tend to look for foreign films that represent the zeitgeist of the country and the quality of the country’s filmmaking culture. They may also look for some form of strong cultural and societal resonance of the country.

So who has been selecting these Singapore submissions over the last few years? According to Juan, a lot of mystery remains how the recent Singapore entries have been submitted. However, he offers his perspective on what could be an ideal way to select.

Anthony's ILO ILO seems to come the closest in contemporary Singapore cinema that seems to universally capture international attention and domestic curiosity. Perhaps this is a small but significant coming-of-age milestone for Singapore cinema as a cultural product to be taken seriously from all sides. And these 'sides' being - International scrutiny from a sense of sovereign branding, artistic achievement in World cinema, and general audience reception. Sovereign branding, for lack of a better phrase, is really about cultural, societal and heritage representation in cinema from a nation's perspective. World cinema achievement is more talent driven and a nod to anthony chen himself first as a filmmaker, and then as a Singaporean achieving accolades and recognition. The general audience reception, international, regional and local, is a yardstick of resonance and engagement. If we can somehow triangulate these three perspectives, into an approach to select Singapore's representation to international film awards such as the oscars, I think there is a possibility that we can 'pre-select' our own representative to the oscars and satisfy everyone ? 

Let us also be aware our cinematic maturity and market is very fledging, still. A few years ago i was asked in IS magazine what was THE quintessential Singapore film, and I replied that there probably isn't one yet as we can really still building critical mass. So without a critical mass of good films it would be a simple mathematical challenge to select something that best represents Singapore. The sampling is pool is so small. Filmmakers who want to make culturally significant films should just doggedly continue and Singapore should do their best to support them.’

While Anthony’s film did not get into the final 5 nominees list, it has certainly made a winning trail in the film festival circuit, picking up awards like the Cannes Camera d’Or and Golden Horse Awards. In the same vein, Pieta by celebrated Korean director Kim Ki Duk bagged the Golden Lion but failed to make nomination for the Oscars. Elite Squad  failed to make the final Oscar shortlist, but won the Golden Bear in 2008 and was a huge commercial success and made a cultural phenomenon in its home ground. The Milk of Sorrow by Claudia Llosa nabbed the Golden Bear but did not win the Oscar though it was nominated.
The global film festival circuit certainly gives filmmakers enough of a reason not give a damn about Hollywood.  And Hollywood does not always see eye to eye with the rest of the world. Here is an interesting look at how Best Foreign Film Oscar winners in the last few years fared in reaching for the golden palms, bears and lions. Some stood less tall than others outside the Oscars.

Year it won BFF Oscar
Film Title
Other notable awards won
2007
The Counterfeiters
-
2008
Departures
32nd Montreal World Film Festival РGrand Prix des Am̩riques
17th Golden Rooster Award – Best Picture
29th Hong Kong Film Award – Best Asian Film
2009
The Secret in Their Eyes
-
2010
In a Better World
68th  Golden Globe Award – Best Foreign Language Film
2011
A Separation
61st Berlin International Film Festival –Golden Bear for Best Film
69th Golden Globe – Best Foreign Language Film
2012
Amour
65th Cannes Film Festival –Palme d’Or (Golden Palm)


70th Golden Globe – Best Foreign Language Film



Will Singapore ever clinch the coveted Oscars? Maybe people should stop asking that question. In the spirit of art, it would be hilarious to imagine Singapore submitting a film tailored for the Oscars’ preference in terms of its genre and language. On an ending note, Juan adds,’Winning awards seriously should NOT be the reasons Singapore filmmakers make films. If that is the sole purpose and drive, then it is a motive of pure egoism, which detracts from the purposes of cinema and shared cultural phenomena in the first place’.

Singapore's 2007 submission by Royston Tan

Singapore's 2008 submission by Eric Khoo

Singapore's 2011 submission by Eric Khoo

Singapore's 2012 submission by Michelle Chong

Michael Haneke walks away with the Best Foreign Film Award for 'Amour' at the 85th Academy Awards

By Jeremy Sing & Gwen Xu

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