Awards Watch: Foreign Language II


In 1911, Dadasaheb Phalke was an unemployed printer and part-time magician trying to make his way in Bombay, India. Phalke's life took an unexpected turn when he stumbled into a tent for a screening of the silent movie "The Life of Christ."

Instantly mesmerized by the new medium, Phalke decided he wanted to make films specifically for the Indian audience. But like so many directors before and after him, Phalke had problems financing his first film. Despite having a wife and two young children, Phalke opted to sell virtually all of their household possessions to pay for his project. The film got made, Phalke became an instant success, and Bollywood was born.

Flash forward almost a century to first-time filmmaker Paresh Mokashi and his biopic of Phalke, "Harishchandrachi Factory." Mokashi spent years trying to get financing for his small, period film with no big stars or musical numbers that was shot in the Marathi language, as opposed to the more universal Hindi. When no financiers came forward, Mokashi took a lesson from his subject and mortgaged his own home. The gamble paid off; the film got made and "Factory" has been submitted by India as its selection for the best foreign-language film Oscar.

Mokashi sees similarities between himself and Phalke but he believes his financial challenges are even more universal.

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"I'm sure every first-time filmmaker will go through the same thing," he says. "Once I decided to do that, there was no dilemma. You don't care about these things that may be in the future."

That sense of optimism serves Mokashi and other Asian filmmakers well in a business rocked by financial instability and a dearth of viable funding sources. Creative financing schemes are plentiful, but there are major challenges.

For director Soxie Topacio, the worldwide economic slowdown has taken its toll on the film industry in his native Philippines, which has gone from making 200 films a year in its heyday in the 1980s to about 50 a year now. According to Topacio, film production has been hit with the double whammy of piracy and an audience that finds ticket prices too high.

"It's 100 pesos ($2.17) to watch a film," he explains. "The people who really watch a lot of Filipino movies cannot afford it. They watch television and watch (cheaper) pirated films instead."

To combat the downward spiral, the local industry stepped in. Topacio's film, "Grandpa Is Dead" was one of six special projects made for $45,000 each with help from an angel investor and the involvement of the Directors Guild of the Philippines, which is using proceeds from the films to fund scholarships for unemployed production staff and their children.

A comedy that follows the outrageous mourning period of one eccentric family's recently departed patriarch, "Grandpa" was shot in just six days, "with 90% of the film shot in one location," Topacio says. Because the script features a big family, the director had to call in favors when it came to casting.

"I asked my friends, all these commercial stars, and they agreed to appear in my film for a very, very minimal fee," he says. "I shot it in digital with two cameras to facilitate the shooting. With one camera it takes more time. Most of the scenes have more than four actors in it. I was quite lucky. My actor friends are so professional they come to my shoot prepared. They know their lines."

Of the six films produced under the special Philippines arrangement, "Grandpa" was the lone hit. While most local films have a one-week run, Topacio's movie ran for two months in the spring. And with his best foreign-language film award submission, "Dead" is still alive, an irony not lost on Topacio.

"Now we spend more on promoting the film than we did making the film," he says.

One foreign-language film nomination hopeful who was able to skirt by the current financial crisis was Ryoichi Kimizuka, who is getting attention for "Nobody to Watch Over Me," his modern Japanese crime drama involving a young girl trying to survive protective custody and the ensuing media circus created by a murder. "Nobody" was shot before "the so-called 'Lehman shock,' " as Kimizuka calls the global financial crisis, but he admits he was mindful of his production budget.

"The Japanese boxoffice has hit a plateau the past few years, and the recoup line has become increasingly difficult to reach," he explains. "Additionally, the boxoffice favorites tend to be film adaptations of hit television series or franchise sequels, so films based on original stories like our film have a hard time breaking out of the crowd."

Like Topacio, Kimizuka got creative with the cameras.

"To capture the documentary-like touch of this film, we took a unique approach in shooting," he says. "Instead of testing and shooting, each sequence was a one-shot shoot, with two cameras recording from all angles."

This cut down on production days, but it also gave Kimizuka a creative angle he was looking for. "We were able to get the fast-paced, documentary-like look that enhanced the reality of the film," he says.

Not all Asian markets are financially bleak for filmmakers. Leon Dai, whose "No Puedo Vivir Sin Ti" is Taiwan's official foreign-language film Oscar selection, is bullish on the industry in his market, calling it much more prosperous than it was years ago thanks to investment from mainland China. But the extra investment comes with a catch.

"The local market is not big enough to support the whole Taiwan film industry," Dai notes, adding that a film needs to have a potential audience in China if there is any expectation of funding. "To be able to release in the Chinese market will be a great plus, or a must, for the investor," he says.

But Dai didn't make life easier for himself with his subject matter -- the true story of a poor man who loses his daughter to authorities after they decide he doesn't have the ability to raise her properly. While casting nonprofessional actors made the film cheaper, it was less of a commercial draw. Dai's strategy was to spend much of his $130,000 budget on art design. Even though the film was about a family in poverty, Dai hoped the style would attract an audience. Dai also chose to shoot with a monochromatic pallet.

"Because of black and white, audiences put all their focus on the characters," he says.

Does a film about a financially struggling family have more resonance now than it would in a boom economy?

"The theme of this film is not merely poverty but the malfunction of the government machine," Dai argues. "I think this is universal, no matter what kind of economic condition, prosperity or depression."

Boom or bust, filmmakers going their own way creatively are accepting the fact that they may be on their own when it comes to financing. Yonfan has self-produced 10 of his 13 films, including Hong Kong's Oscar submission "Prince of Tears." It took him five years to self-finance the 1950s-era story of a young Taiwanese Air Force family torn apart during a period of Communist-fueled paranoia and martial law. In the past, Yonfan used then-obscure actors such as Chow Yun-Fat and Maggie Cheung, who are now certifiable stars in Hong Kong and beyond. Working with no-name actors is still a compromise he is more than willing to make.

"I spend the money on the production instead of spending money on the cast," he says. "That is the reason why my movies don't become commercial successes."

Yonfan invested the time and money he scraped together to create an entire world reminiscent to the community he grew up in as a child in Taiwan. He recreated a period Air Force village, designing costumes and even rebuilding jeeps to get the desired look.

Yonfan was forced to edit his own initial vision, which ended up providing for unexpected opportunities.

In his script Yonfan wrote scenes featuring CG-created effects of Tawianese Air Force planes flying over the village. But when he realized the cost (and the likelihood the planes would never look as good as he wanted them to), he opted to use only the sound of the planes roaring overhead while shooting his actors to create the same impact. For Yonfan, a little austerity like that is one of his greatest allies.

"It's good for filmmakers to have difficult times because then they think," he says. "If you are spoiled with a budget, it will just look like a spoiled movie. If you have difficult times, people can feel it."