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Do the Oscars Have an Asia Problem in the Foreign Language Film Race?

The Academy has only nominated seven films from 17 Asian countries in the last 20 years

A version of this story first appeared in the Foreign Language issue of TheWrap magazine. 

South Korea has never received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language film and never even been shortlisted in the category, despite 29 previous entries and an abundance of world-class filmmakers. The country, which is in the race this year with Lee Chang-dong’s acclaimed “Burning,” is one of the more striking examples of a country whose filmmakers have been unable to land an Oscar nomination despite sustained critical praise.

But it is far from the only country in that boat. And the further east you go, the more the Academy’s foreign-language voters seem to have difficulty with foreign cinema.

Over the last 20 years, more than half the nominations that have gone to countries in Asia have been for Middle Eastern countries like Iran, Israel and Palestine. If you focus on East Asia, South Asia and Southeast Asia, the picture is sobering: Two nominations and one win for Japan, one nomination each for Cambodia, China, India, Nepal and Taiwan and nothing for Bangladesh, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Laos, Mongolia, Pakistan, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam.

The grim total: 20 years, 17 countries, 228 submissions and just seven nominations, during a period when Europe had 59 nominations and North America, a continent with only two eligible countries in Canada and Mexico, had nine.

The list of esteemed international auteurs who’ve been bypassed by Oscar voters in that time includes South Korea’s Kim Ki-duk (“Pieta”) and Bong Joon-ho (“Mother”), Japan’s Hirokazu Kore-eda (“Nobody Knows”), Taiwan’s Hou Hsiao-hsien (“The Assassin and Flowers of Shanghai”), Hong Kong’s Wong Kar-wai (“The Grandmaster”, which was shortlisted but not nominated) and Johnnie To (“Life Without Principle”), China’s Chen Kaige (“Caught in the Web”) and Zhang Yimou (“The Flowers of War”) and Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul (“Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”).

You might be able to blame part of this on the curious submissions made by Asian countries, which often seem to play politics or try to second-guess Oscar voters in their choices. And Asian representation in the Academy itself has been woefully small over the years, with an estimated 250 members in 2016, augmented by a substantial number who’ve been invited to join since then. Even so, the 8,000 current members likely include fewer than 500 Asian Oscar voters.

And there’s more to it than that. “European films are just a lot more comfortable for the voters,” said one Academy member who has attended many of the members’ screenings. “Unless it’s something like ‘The Grandmaster’ or ‘Departures’ [a 2008 Japanese film which gave that country its only win], voters just never seem to connect to Asian cinema.”

As voting nears its conclusion in this year’s race, though, two films seem to have a strong shot of landing on the shortlist and being nominated: “Shoplifters,” Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Palme d’Or winner from this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and “Burning,” which didn’t win any awards from the Cannes jury but set a new record as the best-reviewed film in the history of Screen Daily’s Cannes critics poll.

The foreign-language shortlist, which will consist of nine films, will be announced on Monday, Dec. 17.

Click here to read more from the Foreign Language issue of TheWrap magazine. 

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