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These International Oscar Hopefuls are Worth Your Attention

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By Roger Costa

AGNES JOY

An intensely crafted dramatic thriller, director Silja Hauksdottir shines a light in many issues related to parenting and acceptance through a dynamic multi-generational layer of female perspectives. The narrative elaborately blends a passionless marital crisis, a rebellious coming of age tale, an elderly lady dealing with aging, abandon and grief, seen through the women’s side in parallel with a character study on a seducer male artist/actor trying to get back on track. He is the new neighbor who becomes involved with every member of this dysfunctional family, including breaking boundaries and intimately making his way into the lives of these women, one in the process of figuring out herself into maturity, and the other desperately seeking a valve of escape for her longings and insecurities. Centered on the main characters’ desires, emotions and reactions, the film delivers superb performances from the ensemble cast. They give life to finely conceived characters, people in conflict with themselves and their needs, demonstrating powerful chemistry and creating a highly convincing, dramatic and ambiguous atmosphere. The film also subtly addresses ethnical and moral issues with thought-provoking commentary on race prejudice (the young lady is an adopted child from the Philippines) and on the freedom of our sexual choices (aging plays a key issue in the relationships depicted). The result is great filmmaking and poignant storytelling, a marvelous modern drama.

(Vintage Pictures. Iceland’s Official entry for the 2021 Oscars Best International Film.)

LEAP

Chinese star Gong Li is ravishing and completely transformed in the role of a fierce athlete who becomes the leader for the US Volleyball Team, in a historical dispute at the Olympics against her own origins and former instructor. A smash hit at China’s box office, the film spans four decades in the lives and activities of the women’s team, their sacrifices, intense routine of training and tournaments, seen through the unlikely friendship Lang Ping (Li) develops with her male instructor, and her ups and downs leading both the US and the Chinese teams. Accomplished Director/Writer/Producer Peter Ho-Sun Chan injects adrenaline to the story as his cameras dive into the games and the behind-the-scenes conflicts with precise pacing, moving soundtrack, and gorgeous bright shots, crafting a thrilling and crowd-pleasing sports-drama. Collaborating with some real athletes in the production, the filmmakers scored a vivid and honest portrait of these women’s eagerness, determination, strength and courage, as well as their importance and representation for the nation. It also points to the changes in society, economy and the sports industry along these decades with accuracy and using an easy approach to the historical facts. It is a triumphant and passionate look at comradeship, patriotism, optimism and the energizing vigor of the Athletic Team Spirit.

(We Distribution. China’s Official entry for the Oscars 2021 Best International Film. Now streaming on Amazon Prime.)

SUN CHILDREN

Prolific Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi returns with another heart-breaking and inspirational look at the horrors that poor, working hard kids have to endure in order to survive and provide for their families. In an incredibly convincing breakthrough performance, young actor Roohollah Zamani is a revelation, and could easily enlist among the best acting debuts of the year- he won the Marcello Mastroianni Award at Venice, while director Majidi received the Laterna Magica Award. Zamani masterly builds up his character with total control of the unexpected emotional twists he experiences, his violent impulses, the solidarity he demonstrates and his fragility as a son trying to save his mother’s health and sanity. He is the hero in Majidi’s exploration of children laborer, negligence, abuse and lack of opportunity, as he spends his days working small jobs and committing petit crimes with his friends, flirts with a girl street vendor, and incessantly tries to take his mother away from the facility she’s being treated as a victim of a fire. He is lured into a scheme by a local crime lord, where he must attend school in order to dig a tunnel that should lead to a buried treasure, forcing the boys into a harsh, dangerous and exhaustive illegal working activity. Meanwhile he becomes involved in the school, developing a privileged connection to some of the teachers and directors, as well as becoming empathetic to the other kids’ needs. The school serves as a rehabilitation center for street kids who didn’t have access to education as they had to work, and now faces financial and supportive challenges to maintain its program running. These worlds will collide and through Majidi’s efficiently moving, honest, revealing lenses, we experience the hope and desperation of both the kids pursuing a future, and also the leaders of such wonderful program, seeking a way out of their economic frailties. Wonderfully acted, realistic and immersive, it is an extraordinary and heart-rendering moral tale about dignity, education, greed, resilience and essential needs seen through young eyes whose innocence had been stolen by the injustices of capitalism.

(Strand Releasing will release the film in Spring 2021. Iran’s Official entry for the Oscars 2021 Best International Film.)

LA LLORONA

With only three narrative features so far, Guatemalan director Jayro Bustamante has already confirmed himself as an authentic filmmaker, a modern auteur who understands the topics, dreams and nightmares of his country’s social, political and historical issues, exploring them through unusual, innovative storytelling techniques. He masterly crafted the ritualistic romance “Ixcanul”, then came the religious/sexual drama of “Tremors” and now with “La Llorona” a unique blend of political thriller and horror based on the mystical figure, Bustamante proves to be accomplished in every field and genre he decides to take in. Tense and punctuated by the mysterious occurrences at a haunted house inhabited by a retired General who is facing accusations of Genocide and women’s rape and abuse during the Military dictatorship in the country, his wife, daughter and granddaughter, as well as the family’s servants, the film explores the traumas of all the women presented, including the indigenous women’s devastatingly hard testimonies of the abuse they suffered. Things get worse when the house is blocked by a crowd of protestants, and a new young and mysterious maid from the village arrives at the house. Somber, atmospheric and chillingly shot, this Venice Days Best Film Award Winner is another standout in Bustamante’s never-disappointing and masterful career.

(Shudder. Now streaming on Shudder. Guatemala’s Official entry for the Oscars 2021 Best International Film.)


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