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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Monday, October 13, 2014

entry arrow9:44 PM | 1993 Best Foreign Language Film Reloaded: How to Sleep With Four Sisters

Part 2 of a Series

In 1993, something strange happened to the Best Foreign Language Film lineup for the Oscars. It was surprisingly Asian-centric, after decades and decades of the Oscars being enamoured with European fare. It was a year that was kind to Asian films altogether. The one enduring Asian movie star was immortalised in the popular and well-received biopic, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, starring Jason Lee and directed by Rob Cohen. And Hollywood also produced one mainstream fare that defied expectations: Wayne Wang's adaptation of Amy Tan's bestselling The Joy Luck Club was a critical hit, and was most unusual for having gathered together some of the best-known but least hired Asian-American actresses. To a lesser degree, there was David Cronenberg's adaptation of David Henry Hwang's play M. Butterfly, with Jeremy Irons and John Lone. Other releases included Gurinder Chadha's Bhaji on the Beach and Tsui Hark's The Green Snake. The Cannes Palme d'Or also went to Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine that year, a prestige it shared with Jane Campion's The Piano. It was such a popular hit that Gong Li started getting notices as a possible Best Supporting Actress nominee. The film went on to win Best Foreign Film at the Golden Globes. Over at the Berlin Film Festival, its Golden Bear also went to two Asian films: Xie Fei's The Women from the Lake of Scented Souls and Ang Lee's The Wedding Banquet.

Three films from the continent being nominated for the Oscars wasn't surprising. Consider the contenders: Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine from Hong Kong, Trần Anh Hùng's The Scent of Green Papaya from Vietnam, and Ang Lee's The Wedding Banquet from Taiwan. Three magnificent films whose reputation has not been lessened by the years. They competed for the Oscar statuette along with Fernando Trueba's Belle Époque from Spain and Paul Turner's Hedd Wyn from United Kingdom. The Asian films dominated the conversation that year, but true to the Euro-centric nature of the Oscars, guess which film won: Spain's entry. Let us consider each nominated film again.

This was the eventual Oscar winner, and I remember watching the telecast and feeling miffed when its title was announced. I remembered watching Trueba's film in 1994 with some trepidation. I was a teenager fresh from high school, and all I was hearing about Belle Epoque was how "sexy" it was, how deliciously sinful. After I'd seen it, it didn't do much for me -- although I quite agreed the adjectives hoisted on it proved more or less true. But that's to be expected from a story about a handsome young army deserter at the height of the Spanish Civil War who finds himself somehow living in the farmhouse of an older gentleman who just happened to have four beautiful daughters visiting him from Barcelona. They turn out to be all ravishingly beautiful and temperamentally different from each other, which only makes the young man decide to stay on, in hopes of winning one of the girls. He just doesn't win one sister, he manages to bed them one after the other in a series of fortunate circumstances until finally he makes his fate by acknowledging the one who loves him the best.

Seeing it again, it strikes me as being -- ironic for its themes -- a conservatively assembled film, quite an old-fashioned effort that doesn't push the cinematic envelope much. It's not scintillating cinema at all, but it wallows prettily in its carnal fantasy. It has lots of humour thrown in for good measure, plus a stick or two of historical reflections that can persuade the viewer to think that perhaps all these is some kind of commentary about the deep-rooted schisms of Spanish society before Franco. There has to be since it cannot just be all about beautiful women and beautiful men and rambunctious sex and some other shenanigans. But it's sad to note that, more than twenty years later, we find that there's ultimately not much there in the film: it's just a pleasant, inoffensive sex comedy that has the brilliance of a lazy siesta.

Next up: Paul Turner's Hedd Wyn

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