Although the Oscar-nominated foreign language films for 1991 represent one of the most uneven selections in years, the Academy's ninth annual foreign film symposium, held Saturday morning, was one of the liveliest.
Even livelier was the traditional directors' branch luncheon at Le Dome in honor of the directors of the five nominated foreign films, which was attended by two women directors notable because of nominations they didn't receive--"The Prince of Tides" director Barbra Streisand and Agnieszka Holland, whose widely acclaimed "Europa Europa," the true story of a Jewish youth who survived World War II as a Nazi soldier, was not submitted into the Oscar race by Germany.
In opening remarks, symposium chairman George Schaefer emphasized how little the five nominated foreign films had in common. Zhang Yimou's "Raise the Red Lantern," a highly stylized tragedy involving the four wives of a Northern China nobleman of the 1920s, is generally regarded as the film to beat. The other nominees are Sven Nykvist's "The Ox," a story set against severe famine conditions in Sweden in the 1860s; Gabriele Salvatores' "Mediterraneo," a comedy about eight Italian soldiers stranded on an idyllic Greek isle during World War II; Jan Sverak's "The Elementary School," a comedy set in the immediate aftermath of World War II and involving a class of obstreperous Czech schoolboys; and Fridrik Thor Fridriksson's "Children of Nature," a contemporary fantasy involving an elderly Icelandic couple who run away from an old people's home.
The hero of the symposium was Zhang, director of "Raise the Red Lantern." Last year, when Zhang's "Ju Dou" was nominated, he was not permitted to attend the Oscar festivities. A co-production with Hong Kong, "Raise the Red Lantern" is Hong Kong's entry rather than China's official entry in the Academy Awards, and he was allowed to attend this year.
But the Chinese government has not allowed either "Ju Dou" or "Raise the Red Lantern" to be shown in China, and have given no reasons to Zhang for their prohibition. However, it is possible to read into them, although they are both period pictures, certain criticisms of current repressive conditions in that country. If anything, international acclaim has made the official Chinese watchdogs keep an even closer eye on Zhang's work.
Nevertheless, Zhang, speaking through his interpreter, actress Lisa Lu, sounded an optimistic note, especially in regard to co-productions with Taiwan as well as Hong Kong. "More and more Chinese realize that only through China, Hong Kong and Taiwan coming all together can we respond to the need for good Chinese films," he said. He also quipped that he was glad he didn't have to photograph 110 features before turning director, as in the case of Sven Nykvist, who has shot 22 Ingmar Bergman films and was introduced by Schaefer as "the world's greatest cameraman."
One observation the five directors said they had in common was that in their countries, women have equal opportunities with men in all aspects of filmmaking. Fridriksson said in six upcoming Icelandic productions, half will be directed by women.
Streisand spoke passionately of her response to Zhang's film in its depiction of women being competitive rather than supportive of each other in the face of oppression. Streisand has taken her omission from the best director nominees with philosophical good grace, preferring, as she said, to look at "the glass as half full--what can you do, anyway?" Even so, she remarked pointedly that "If a man is the producer, director and the star of a picture, he's an auteur; if a woman does that, she's an egotist."
(Although she wasn't nominated for best director, Streisand produced the best-picture nominee "Prince of Tides," and would accept the Oscar is it wins. Holland was nominated for her adapted screenplay for "Europa Europa.")
When Schaefer heard that Holland was here (for talks with Warner Bros.), he invited her to be a special guest at the lunch. She said that thanks to the publicity generated from Germany's failure to make "Europa Europa" its official entry, that she felt "already like a winner.
"In my native country, Poland, 'Europa Europa' is in first place at the box office," Holland said. "And think of it, in that country and that subject--ahead of 'Terminator 2,' 'The Addams Family' and 'The Silence of the Lambs.' But we need more collaboration within the empire of the cinema. Hollywood is too strong, and in Europe we're fighting to keep our identity."
In concluding remarks, Fay Kanin, foreign language committee chairman, deplored the failure of Germany to select "Europa Europa" but argued that to amend academy rules to allow the committee to nominate the occasional overlooked film would not be fair to the other foreign films nominated according to regulations.
Instead, Kanin said, the academy will do everything it can to ensure that those organizations charged with choosing the official entry for their country will include filmmakers--"and not just political or cultural bureaucrats."