Postcard: Los Angeles

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 March, 2013, 6:01pm

Last Sunday night, Ben Affleck's Argo was named the best motion picture of the year at the 2013 Academy Awards ceremony while Ang Lee received the best director honour for Life of Pi.

Much was made in the run-up to the Oscars of Argo's helmer being shut out of the best director category, something Affleck made light of in the aftermath of the awards show. While he was initially disappointed, he consoled himself by noticing which other deserving directors didn't get a nod, including Quentin Tarantino ( Django Unchained) and Paul Thomas Anderson ( The Master).

Life of Pi also took the best cinematography, best visual effects and best original score awards. Its success was some compensation for the fact that Asian cinema had a slim presence this year.

All of the Asian submissions for the best foreign film were sidelined in favour of contenders from Austria (which won for the lovely Amour), Norway, Chile, Denmark and Canada. Films from Asia that didn't make the final shortlist of five films included the mainland's Caught in the Web (directed by Chen Kaige), Hong Kong's Life Without Principle and Taiwanese nominee Touch of the Light.

Not that Asia hasn't had a strong run intermittently in the past. In the 21st century alone, there was Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which won Oscars in 2001 for best cinematography (with Hong Kong's Peter Pau Tak-hei getting individual recognition), best art direction/set decoration (by Hongkonger Tim Yip Kam-tim) and best music, original score (mainland composer Tan Dun) along with best foreign-language film.

Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away won the best animated feature category in 2003. And Lee (again) earned his first best director prize for Brokeback Mountain in 2006. In addition, there was Slumdog Millionaire, whose eight Oscars in 2009 included ones for composer A.R. Rahman and lyricist Gulzar.

But what does seem especially striking about this year is just how American many of the top contenders in one of the more keenly anticipated Oscar races in recent memory are. The serious, historical Lincoln, the quirky Silver Linings Playbook, the relatively niche - and occasionally hard to watch - Beasts of the Southern Wild, the graphically violent Django Unchained and the controversial Argo: all are steeped in American culture and American history.

While some Oscar contenders of years past have translated superbly around the world ( Slumdog Millionaire, for example), some of the current crop have been a bit of a harder sell in important international markets. Indeed, they seem almost predicated on a primarily American audience.

Which is why the good run that Life of Pi had last Sunday evening was so significant: it has done colossal business outside of the US, and is a truly multi-cultural production - in his acceptance speech, director Lee thanked his crews in Taiwan and India (saluting them in both Mandarin and Hindi).

"Ninety per cent of the movie was shot in Taiwan," Lee said backstage after the awards ceremony. "They gave us a lot of physical help and financial help. My best wish to win this is to go up and thank the people I need to thank, including the people in Taiwan. It was a very sweet moment for me."

The internationalism of the film naturally extended to the cast, from Indian newcomer Suraj Sharma and respected Indian actors Irrfan Khan and Tabu to French star Gerard Depardieu (who also was granted Russian citizenship earlier this year).

"It really was an international film," said Lee. "I'm glad that Taiwan got to contribute this much to the film. This movie really belongs to the world."

Interestingly, Tarantino, who won the best original screenplay award with Django Unchained, a violent movie (does he make any others?) set in the fractious southern states two years before the American civil war, made a point of stressing his global outlook.

"I've always prided myself on being an international filmmaker," he said backstage, clutching his statue. "The way I look at it, I'm not an American filmmaker. I am an American and I am a filmmaker. It's been that way for me since the beginning, since Reservoir Dogs … to me, America is just another market. I make movies for Earth."