When it comes to this year’s Foreign Language Film Oscar race, it seems Sundance Selects just can’t catch a break. Coming out of Cannes, the company headed by Jonathan Sehring — who also runs IFC — looked like it easily could have two of the five nominees in the category, especially after its acquisitions took two of the top three prizes at Cannes. The French sensation Blue Is The Warmest Color won the coveted Palme d’Or (usually a key factor in considering a film for Oscar submission), while the Jury Prize (essentially third place) went to Japan’s moving and extremely well-received Like Father, Like Son, which so infatuated Cannes Jury President Steven Spielberg that his DreamWorks is negotiating for an English-language remake.
It seemed at the time that both would be a cinch as their respective countries’ entry in the race, and Sundance Selects was riding high. But as Deadline reported in July, a quirky Academy rule that requires a foreign entry to have opened by September 30 in its country of origin KO’d Warmest Color’s chances, despite Sehring’s best efforts to turn it around. Unfortunately Wild Bunch, the film’s French distributor, was dead set on releasing it October 9, and a qualifying run was ruled out. Now, in what for me is an even more stunning setback, the seven-member Japan Movie Producers Association ignored its country’s high-profile Cannes winner and instead chose a more obscure film, The Great Passage (Fune O Amu) from 30-year-old director Yuya Ishii, the youngest ever to represent Japan in the Oscar contest. That film was released in April — doing nice, if unremarkable, business at the box office. Like Father, Like Son is scheduled for a September 28 release in Japan, a date presumably chosen to make it eligible for the Oscar race. But it’s not to be.
Not only did I think Like Father, Like Son (Soshite Chichi Ni Naru) — from acclaimed writer-director Hirokazu Koreeda (After Life) — would be entered and nominated, I thought it could win. The touching story of parents who discover that their 6-year-old accidentally was switched at birth is fully in line with the kind of humanist films that have clicked in recent years with the Academy’s largely older and more conservative Foreign Language Committee — and that includes Japan’s most recent 2008 Best Foreign Language surprise winner, Departures.
That Spielberg himself has given Like Father the ultimate stamp of approval by trying to remake the film — I heard from a close confidante of his that it was his personal favorite at the fest — would seem to give Japan even more reason to submit the movie. One former head of a major distributor who is very active in shepherding foreign films in their U.S. release told me today he thought Japan’s action was “insane”.
This is not to disparage The Great Passage, an offbeat romantic drama I have yet to see. But bottom line, whatever the film’s attributes, it does not have anywhere near the international profile of Koreeda’s film, which likely would have a better shot at Oscar attention.
Word was floating around IFC’s lively annual dinner Saturday night at the Toronto International Film Festival (where Blue Is The Warmest Color and Like Father, Like Son were having their North American Premieres) that Japan had chosen something else. Koreeda didn’t mention the slight when I spoke with him (through an interpreter) and seemed simply glad his film was being given such a great showcase. He told me he is flattered that Spielberg liked the film and wants a DreamWorks remake but hasn’t finalized a deal. “I haven’t signed on the dotted line yet,” he said. “I hope that first American audiences will have the opportunity to see my film first.”
Sehring, clearly disappointed by Japan’s decision, now is hoping to find some Oscar love for these two films outside of the Foreign Language category. Warmest Color opens October 25 in the U.S., making it eligible for other Academy contests including acting, writing and directing. And now Sundance Selects plans to qualify Like Father, Like Son for all other categories with a run before the end of the year. Koreeda’s screenplay would seem a contender, and if it weren’t so competitive a year for Best Actor, I can think of no one more deserving of a nomination there than the film’s lead, Masaharu Fukuyama. Hopefully, Oscar voters will check it out.
The ironic thing is both films will be eligible for the Golden Globe Foreign Language race, and that should be embarrassing enough for the Academy to perhaps start rethinking its aging rules and methods on selecting the year’s Best Foreign Language Film. An overhaul in eligibility requirements and even how films are selected would not be a bad idea to keep Oscar up with the changing world of international distribution of these movies. Just sayin’.