Is the 30th time the charm? Up until this year, South Korea has submitted 29 films to the Academy Awards for consideration for Best Foreign Language Film and never received a nomination. It’s a curious historical omission (embarrassing more for the Academy than it is for Korea) when you consider the country’s filmmaking stature in the world. Just consider the roster of (yes, all male) filmmakers that emerged out of the newly democratic Republic of Korea in the ’90s: Bong Joon-ho (The Host), Park Chan-wook (Oldboy), Hong Sang-soo (On the Beach at Night Alone), Na Hong-jin (The Wailing), Kim Ki-duk (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring), and on and on. But this year might be Korea’s best chance yet with Lee Chang-dong’s Burning — he’s has had two of his films, Oasis (2002) and Secret Sunshine (2007), submitted before — on the docket for consideration.
Burning, based on the short story “Barn Burning” by Haruki Murakami (itself playing off of a William Faulkner short story of the same title), loosely follows a triangular relationship. Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), a drifter from the countryside, runs into his childhood friend Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), and they have a sexual relationship that results in her asking him to watch her cat while she takes a trip to Kenya. She returns with Ben (Steven Yeun) in tow, an unnervingly calm and extremely rich cosmopolite. There’s one standout scene where the trio take in the countryside outside of Jong-su’s childhood home near the DMZ; Haemi begins to dance, and as the sun burns out, Ben tells Jong-su about his hobby of choice: burning down greenhouses. It’s a stunning sequence, and one Manohla Dargis singled it out in her review for the New York Times, calling it one of the most beautiful scenes in years.
But it has often been the case that very good, critically acclaimed foreign films have gone unrecognized including everything from Akira Kurosawa’s Rhapsody in August to Run Lola Run and Persepolis to, most recently, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days and BPM. The reasons why are largely structural: The foreign-language film category at the Oscars has a convoluted nomination process that requires a large time and geographical commitment from Academy members (until this year, they had to be L.A.-based). There isn’t a foreign-film branch the way there is with directing; instead, there has been an opt-in system where members are asked to watch and rate a large number of films. The voting demographic that had the time to commit tended to skew older and retired, meaning there was a general distaste for more difficult or “outré” fare (the explicit gay sex scenes from BPM likely hurt the film’s chances last year), as well as a persistent bias toward Western European films (European films have won over 80 percent of Best Foreign Language Film Oscars).
Then there are the films the countries submit themselves. The rule is that each country can only submit one entry, and it can’t be in English. (There are 87 submissions this year.) South Korea has often opted for middle-of-the-road fare instead of the bold, internationally beloved darlings. Last year, for instance, instead of going with the obvious choice, The Handmaiden by the director Park Chan-wook, Korea submitted the more broadly appealing The Age of Shadows. (It’s notable too that The Handmaiden didn’t receive nominations in any other category, either.) Korean submissions are picked by the Korean Film Council (KOFIC), which has its own scandal-plagued history. Earlier this year, KOFIC came under fire after an investigation revealed that they had a blacklist of artists and filmmakers who were deemed to have progressive politics, or rather, political views that were critical of the conservative government. The list, which had over 10,000 names (including Park Chan-wook, who has never had one of his films submitted by KOFIC), started under the conservative president Lee Myung-bak and accelerated as criticism mounted against President Park Geun-hye after the Sewol ferry disaster. (The culture minister has since been jailed.)
But a few things might help Korea this time around. The nomination has the lowest bar for entry ever this year. Now, a member only needs to have seen 12 films out of this year’s overall pool of 87 films. Voting is no longer restricted solely to L.A. residents, and it will be done online for the first time. All movies still must be seen in a theater, meaning it continues to require a big time commitment from voters. From there, the highest-rated six movies go to a 30-person Foreign Language Film Award Committee who then add three other films to create a short list of nine movies, which will then get whittled down to five.
Burning in particular has a number of things going for it: the film premiered at Cannes earlier this year, riding a wave of critical support and receiving the highest score ever from a consensus of critics at Screen. It’s getting a U.S. theatrical run starting October 26. But maybe the most important thing is simply that Burning stars Steven Yeun, who accumulated a good deal of populist clout from his role as Glenn in The Walking Dead. Moreover, he’s been putting in the press hours, promoting the film in thoughtful interview after thoughtful interview. In a Good Morning America appearance only someone like Yeun could pull off, he promoted Burning, talked about Andrew Lincoln, and then played ping-pong basketball with Michael Strahan and Sara Haines. If Yeun can sell a Korean art-house thriller to Middle America, who says the Academy can’t fall for his charms?