For ten consecutive years from 1995 to 2004, the Philippines submitted films for consideration for the Best Foreign Language Film category of the Oscar Awards. But up to this point of film history, we remain in the list of countries who has never won nor nominated for this award.
Is getting nominated and, much more, winning the best foreign language film trophy of the Oscar Awrads a mission impossible? Let us backtrack to 1995.
In 1995, the country’s entry was Inagaw Mo ang Lahat sa Akin (Harvest Home) which was directed by Carlito Siguion-Reyna and scripted by his wife Bibeth Orteza. Set in a rural village, it is the story of sibling rivalry between two sisters, the dutiful daughter and wife (played by Maricel Soriano) and the more beautiful sister who left and returned after 10 years (Snooky Serna).
But the best foreign language film for 1995 was Antonia’s Line, a film from the Netherlands directed by Marleen Gorris. Described by its director as a ‘feminist fairy tale’, the film spans 40 years starting just after World War II as an independent young woman takes over a family farm and gets involved in other humanist endeavors. The themes range from death and religion to sex, intimacy, lesbianism, friendship and love.
The Philippine entry for 1996 was Segurista (The Insurance Agent), directed by Tikoy Aguiluz and written by Jose Lacaba. The films stars Michelle Aldana, Gary Estrada, Ruby Moreno, Albert Martinez and Julio Diaz. It is the story of Karen, an insurance agent in Manila, who sidelines as a club escort at night and visits her husband and daughter in the province during weekends.
But the best foreign language film for 1996 was Kolya from Czechos-lovakia which was directed by Jan Sverak. The film opens in 1988 as the Soviet bloc begins to disintegrate. It is the story of a middle-aged bachelor who plays his cello during funerals at crematoria and ends up bonding with a five-year-old Russian boy, Kolya, who is left to his care when the boy’s mother left for Germany.
The following year, 1997, we fielded Milagros which was directed by Marilou Diaz-Abaya from the script of Rolando Tinio. It is the story of a prostitute who is hired as a family maid and eventually gets involved with the father and his sons. The cast includes Sharmaine Arnaiz in the title role, Dante Rivero, Joel Torre, Raymond Bagatsing, Noni Buencamino and Elizabeth Oropesa.
But the best foreign language film for 1997 was Character, a Dutch/ Belgian film directed by Mike van Diem from a best-selling novel. Set in the 1920s, it is the story of an ambitious young lawyer who was arrested for the killing of a bailiff who is his father. The film then explores the intense hatred between father and son as they literally make life hard for each other but at film’s end, it is revealed that the bailiff really committed suicide and actually left his considerable wealth to his son.
It was another film by Marilou Diaz-Abaya, Sa Pusod ng Dagat (In the Navel of the Sea), which was the Philippines’ entry in 1998. Written by Jun Lana, the cast includes Jomari Yllana, Chin-Chin Gutierrez and Elizabeth Oropesa. It is the story of a young man who inherits his mother’s role of being the village midwife. The son does not mind his unusual work initially but soon begins to resist the role as traditionally meant for women. But in the end, acceptance overcomes prejudice and love and understanding grows between mother and son.
But the best foreign language film for 1998 was the popular Life is Beautiful, an Italian film written and directed by Roberto Benigni which tells the story of a Jewish Italian (also played by Benigni) whose family (wife and son) are brought to a concentration camp. The dramatic efforts of the father to convince his young son that the camp is just a game and that life is really beautiful turn this into a film classic.
The first of three films directed by Gil Portes, Saranggola (The Kite), was RP’s entry in 1999. Written by Jose Dalisay and Portes, it is the story of a widower ex-cop (Ricky Davao) who guns down a boy retrieving his kite on the rooftop after mistaking him for a burglar and hurriedly covers up his misdeed, not knowing that his own ten-year-old son (Lester Lansang) witnessed the killing.
But the best foreign language film for 1999 was All About My Mother by renowned Spanish director Pedro Almodovar. The screenplay deals with complex issues such as AIDS, transvestitism, faith and existentialism. It centers on Manuela, a nurse who oversees donor organ transplants in a Madrid hospital and single mother to her teenaged son who dies in a car accident. She donates her son’s heart and embarks on a visit to see the father of his son who is a transvestite.
In 2000, the country’s entry was Anak (Child), directed by Rory B. Quintos from the script of Raymond Lee and Ricardo Lee. It is the story of a Filipina domestic helper (Vilma Santos) in Hongkong who returns to Manila after 10 years and is greeted with her children’s resentment because their father died during their mother’s absence. She buckles down to pick up and string back together her shattered family.
But the best foreign language film for 2000 was the China-Hong Kong-Taiwan-US co-production Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a film in wuxia martial arts style directed by Ang Lee. The cast includes now international film luminaries Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi.
Director Portes came back with Gatas…sa Dibdib ng Kaaway (In the Bosom of the Enemy), the country’s entry to the Oscars in 2001. Co-written with Jose Dalisay, the film centers on the relationship between a Filipina (Mylene Dizon) and a Japanese officer (Kenji Motoki) during the Occupation era and the guerrilla leader (Jomari Yllana) who interacts with them.
But the best foreign language film for 2001 was No Man’s Land,a tragic-comedy war drama set in the midst of the Bosnian War directed by Danis Tanovic. It focuses on three wounded soldiers trapped in a trench, one of them with a land mine buried beneath him. Two of the soldiers who are bitter enemies are rescued while the third cannot be moved and eventually is blown up which the rescue team keeps a secret.
Director Portes struck again the following year with Mga Munting Tinig (Small Voices), our entry to the Oscars in 2002. It is a story of a young university graduate who decides to teach in a poor remote barrio instead of working abroad as her family expects from her. She encourages several schoolchildren to form a choral group to compete in a provincial contest. The group has to contend with some resistance and discouraging moves from parents and faculty alike and even the killing of one of their members by the military to rise and prove their worth. This film managed to enter the short list of eight semi-finalists but was bumped off when the list was trimmed to the final five nominees.
But the best foreign language film for 2002 was Nowhere in Africa, a German film directed by Caroline Link. Based on an autobiographical novel by Stefani Zweig, it tells the story of a Jewish family that emigrated to Kenya during World War II to escape the Nazis and run a farm but were rounded up by the British for being German citizens.
The next year 2003, the country’s entry was Dekada ’70, directed by Chito S. Rono based on the novel Dekada ’70 of Lualhati Bautista. It tells the story of a middle-class Filipino couple (Christopher de Leon and Vilma Santos) and their five sons during a tumultuous decade of the martial law regime. The sons were played by Piolo Pascual, Carlos Agassi, Marvin Agustin, Daniel Barrios and John Wayne Sace.
But the best foreign language film for 2003 was The Barbarian Invasions, a French-Canadian comedy-drama directed by Denys Arcand. It is a sequel to Arcand’s earlier film, The Decline of the American Empire. The plot revolves around a father’s battle with terminal cancer and the efforts of his estranged son to make his dying father more comfortable in his last days. The son brings his old man to Vermont to receive medical care and reunites kin and friends for his father’s pleasure.
Finally in 2004, our entry to the Oscars was Crying Ladies, a whimsical comedy directed by Mark Meily about three women who cry at funerals for a fee. The mourners-for-hire are played by Sharon Cuneta, Hilda Koronel and Angel Aquino. The male cast includes Eric Quizon, Ricky Davao, Johnny Delgado, Edgar Mortiz and Ramond Bagatsing.
But the best foreign language film for 2004 was The Sea Inside of Spanish director Alejandro Amenabar. It is the true-to-life story of a Spanish ship mechanic who was left a quadriplegic after a diving accident and his 28-year-campaign to justify euthanasia to uphold his right to end his own life. The court ruled against him but he ended his life by drinking cyanide. Despite his death wish, he taught everyone he encountered in his 28 years being bed-ridden the true meaning and value of life.
(Next week: RP entries to the Oscars from 2006 to 2009 and the final five nominees for each year)
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