The (long and winding) road to the Oscars…

Perhaps it’s time for Malaysian filmmakers to dig deeper into the country’s soul that could be displayed to the world

pic by AFP

IT WAS certainly a pleasant surprise when black comedy thriller “Parasite”, a Korean film directed by Bong Joon-ho, became the first non-English film to win the Academy Awards for Best Picture last year.

The success has been viewed by many that the global film industry is really changing.

It was also a sign for many filmmakers that you do not need to make films in English to be recognised internationally. “Parasite” is certainly a symbol of hope for producers all over the world who are trying to figure out how to make it big globally.

“Parasite” won four awards at the 92nd Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best International Feature Film.

Prior to the Oscars, it was also the first South Korean film to win Best Picture at Palme d’Or, after it premiered at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.

The film also won the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film and the British Academy Film Awards for Best Film Not in the English Language.

“Parasite” also features among the best actors from the country, including Song Kang-ho, Lee Sun-kyun, Cho Yeo-jeong, Choi Woo-shik, Park So-dam, Jang Hye-jin and Lee Jung-eun who have collectively won the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture.

The film offers a rather simple storyline. It follows the members of a poor family who con their ways into the lives of a wealthy family by infiltrating the latter’s house- hold as unrelated, highly qualified individuals.

Still, the other aspects in the film — from the impeccable art direction and cinematography, as well as other details that made it an even more superior film — are also the contributing factor to the film’s massive success.

The film received nearly unanimous critical acclaim and is considered by many critics to be the best film of 2019.

“Parasite” grossed over US$266 million (RM1.14 billion) worldwide on a production budget of about US$11 million, becoming the highest-grossing South Korean film.

Now, can Malaysian filmmakers replicate such a success, one might ask?

Last week, Communications and Multimedia Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah announced a rather ambitious scheme called “Project Oscar”, an initiative that might bring Malaysian filmmakers closer to being on the global stage along with other international players at the Academy Awards.

He has assigned the task to the National Film Development Corp (Finas) to come up with a road map that could pave the way for Malaysian films to be part of the Oscars.

Saifuddin said Project Oscar would be a medium-to-long-term plan that may probably take the Malaysian film industry around 20 to 30 years to achieve.

“It’s just like trying to achieve the gold medal at the Olympics, there must be a target, programme, planning and when we will achieve it,” he said.

Well, the problem is, Saifuddin is not the first minister who had mooted the idea, and Finas had just been bestowed with yet another round of reshuffle following the recent change in government.

Many before him had spoken about the same thing, and yet, no one had really come up with anything that could be Oscar-worthy.

In fact, many Malaysian filmmakers are finding it hard to get the locals to watch their works at the cinemas.

So, let’s set the Project Oscar aside for a while and see how we can get Malaysians to be excited about our own products first.

After all, how can we get others excited about our films, when most of our own projects are not tickling anyone’s fancy at home?

Observers over the years have been debating and deliberating on the real issues faced by Malaysian films.

Many thought that Malaysian films have been too preoccupied to make as much money from each project that they tend to forgo the soul that makes each film special.

Certain producers are also keener to follow certain formulas to make quick bucks, while many film enthusiasts say they have yet to be illuminated with original Malaysian stories at the local cinemas.

In short, the issues are still the same, and yet no one is reacting correctly.

The minister also talked about certain initiatives that would focus on producing films that could instil a sense of patriotism, while showcasing the Malaysian identity on the international stage.

Now, this is a really tricky task. What is the actual “Malaysian identity”?

Could he be referring to films that feature all the races in Malaysia for the sake of showing the nation’s multicultural nature, or a film that depicts the real struggle among the people that is universal enough to attract a global audience?

Could Saifuddin be referring to more honest works that could touch the hearts of others, or “devised story lines” that are perhaps politically correct which could also please everyone?

Prior to “Parasite”, “Burning” was another Korean film that did create some ripples at the international film festivals.

The 2018 South Korean psychological thriller, which is co-written, co-produced and directed by Lee Chang-dong has only three main characters played by Yoo Ah-hin, Steven Yeun and Jeon Jong-seo.

While the story moves pretty slowly, the film allows the audience to get to know South Korea and a section of the people via scenes that are simple and honest, yet stunningly shot.

Burning

‘Burning’ allows the audience to get to know South Korea and a section of the people via scenes that are simple and honest, yet stunningly shot

“Burning” premiered at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival and competed for the Palme d’Or and ended up receiving the FIPRESCI International Critics Prize.

The film received almost universal critical acclaim, particularly for its “sense of unease and ambiguous narrative and performances”.

It was selected as the South Korean entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 91st Academy Awards. Although it was not nominated, it became the first Korean film to make it to the final nine-film shortlist.

Earlier, there were other films with inspirational stories from surprising sources that had made it to the Oscars.

Who could forget Iran’s “Children of Heaven”, that lost to Roberto Benigni’s “Life is Beautiful” in the Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars in 1998, or “The Scent of Green Papaya” from Vietnam that was nominated in the same category in 1993?

All these films offer simple story lines, yet they manage to awaken the senses of many across the globe.

Perhaps it’s time for Malaysian filmmakers to dig deeper into the country’s soul that could be displayed to the world.

No, Malaysians are certainly not hollow. Just saying…


Zainal Alam Kadir is the executive editor at The Malaysian Reserve.