The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Foreign Language Film award has been no stranger to controversy in the last few years, from its snubbing of Italy’s Gomorrah and Romania’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days to the elaborate rule changes adopted by the Academy in the hope of making the category a fairer contest. Maybe it’s time they just wiped the slate clean. Although this year’s AFI Fest lineup features nine of the 65 films submitted for this year’s Foreign Language Oscar — many of them deserving — perhaps more noteworthy is the inclusion of two standout films already disqualified from this year’s Oscar race before it has even begun.
Written and directed by Lu Chuan, The City of Life and Death is a startling historical epic, as brilliantly well-made as it is sociologically astute, set during the 1937 Japanese occupation of the walled Chinese city of Nanking. Latterly exposed in books and documentary films as China’s “forgotten holocaust,” the siege of Nanking brought with it a series of unspeakable (if all too common) atrocities committed by the occupiers against the occupied: the murder of hundreds of thousands of civilians; the rape of tens of thousands of women and underage girls; and, in one of the film’s most bloodcurdling scenes, the point-blank assassination of wounded Chinese soldiers in a convalescent hospital.
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Shooting in black-and-white wide screen, Lu opens with a bravura combat sequence styled after Saving Private Ryan, but the moral ambiguity of what follows owes more to Clint Eastwood’s Iwo Jima diptych, with its unblinking depiction of heroism and barbarism, compromise and betrayal on all sides. Indeed, two of the film’s ostensible heroes are a Chinese collaborationist (the excellent Fan Wei) and a young Japanese soldier (Hideo Nakaizumi) horrified by what he sees but powerless to do anything about it. For a big-budget, censor-approved Chinese production, this sort of nuanced view of history is fairly radical stuff — so much so that, in China, where The City of Life and Death has been a box-office smash, some have accused Lu’s film of being too “pro-Japanese.” Perhaps that’s why, where Oscar and its patronizing one-film, one-country rule is concerned, Chinese officials have decided instead to submit Chen Kaige’s thoroughly unenchanting costume drama Forever Enchanted, a sort-of Farewell My Concubine–lite that has scarcely been seen on the festival circuit since its crash-and-burn Berlin premiere back in February.
In the case of writer-director Jean van de Velde’s The Silent Army, another unusually tough-minded film about the casualties of war, it was chosen by the Netherlands as its official entry to the Oscars, only to then be ruled out on an absurd technicality: The version of the film screened in Cannes and submitted to the academy differed substantially from the one commercially released in Dutch cinemas, where van de Velde’s film was called White Light and ran some 30 minutes longer. Per the academy’s arcane rules, only White Light would have been eligible for the Oscar, no matter that van de Velde himself supervised the re-editing, making The Silent Army, in effect, his director’s cut. Never mind: See it anyway. I myself approached the movie with a certain degree of skepticism, believing it in its early passages to be yet another entry in one of my least favorite genres: the pious white man’s Africa guilt-trip movie (see: Cry Freedom, Hotel Rwanda, The Last King of Scotland). Then, around the time that one of van de Velde’s characters asks, “Why is Africa always the playground of white people showing off their moral superiority?,” I began to perk up.
The man on the receiving end of those words, Eduard Zuiderwijk (singer Marco Borsato), is an African-born Dutchman running in an unnamed East African country a restaurant whose clientele runs the gamut from foreign aid workers to black market arms dealers. The country itself is subject to the familiar strife between an ineffectual postcolonial government and an insurgent guerrilla warlord, General Obeke, backed by an army of teen and preteen foot soldiers. When the best friend of Eduard’s son becomes one of Obeke’s unwitting conscripts, the politically disengaged restaurateur sets out to find him — and if the plotting of The Silent Army strains credibility at times, van de Velde’s sure-footed direction and savvy about the complexities of African society more than make up for it. A child of Africa himself, raised in Congo and Burundi, van de Velde has an innate feel for the region’s social and moral injustices, which goes far beyond Hollywood platitudinizing. He also has an ace up his sleeve in the form of actor Abby Mukiibi Nkaaga, whose Obeke is the sort of grandiloquent sociopath Charles Laughton or Orson Welles might have played. An evildoer? Perhaps. But like everyone in The Silent Army, he has his reasons.
The Silent Army screens at Grauman’s Chinese on Sat., Oct. 31 at 4 p.m. The City of Life and Death screens at the Mann Chinese 6 on Sun., Nov. 1 at 1 p.m.