'Weird' leads field for Asian Film Awards


South Korea's "The Good, the Bad, the Weird," an homage to the spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone, led the way with eight mentions Wednesday as nominees were revealed for the third annual Asian Film Awards, an event organizers hope will become the Oscars of Asia.

Films from Japan and China otherwise dominated the 13 categories, with 18 Japanese productions or co-productions and 17 Chinese entries earning nominations.

Actress Michelle Yeoh will lead the jury selecting the winners, set to be announced March 23 in Hong Kong during a ceremony televised throughout Asia.

The AFA gala, organized by the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society, kicks off Entertainment Expo Hong Kong, which also includes the Hong Kong International Film Festival, the Hong Kong and Asia Film Financing Forum and the Hong Kong Filmart.

Director Kim Jee-woon's "Weird" drew nominations in four major categories: best film, director, actor (Song Kang-ho) and supporting actor (Jung Woo-sung).

Earning three noms each were China's "Red Cliff," helmed by John Woo, and "Forever Enthralled," directed by Chen Kaige. Hayao Miyazaki's "Ponyo on the Cliff" joins Koki Mitani's "The Magic Hour" and Tetsuya Nakashima's "Paco and the Magical Book" as Japanese titles with three noms apiece. Also picking up a trio of noms each were festival favorites "The Chaser," from South Korea's Na Hong-jin, and Filipino director Brillante Mendoza's "Service."

Despite its short history, the AFA gala has weathered a few storms. Operational hiccups marred last year's ceremony and taught organizers a few lessons.

A best newcomer award has been added this year, and the ceremony will be faster-paced. Also, by delaying the broadcast, organizers will be able to add simultaneous subtitles for presenters and award winners, rather than translating their words onstage.

"The new team is now running smoothly," HKIFFS chairman Wilfred Wong said. "The operation is more mature; we have learned from experience."

The society's new executive director, Soo-wei Shaw, has set high standards to make the awards a regional event.

Improving the ceremony is about "targeting new audiences," said Shaw, who comes from a media marketing background. "We are using many different platforms to promote this event, including online and digital platforms."

Wong said the plan to mold the AFA into Asia's Oscars is ambitious but noted, "History played a big part in making the Oscars what it is today — it wasn't built in one day."

Through its Arts Development Council, the Hong Kong government subsidizes the awards and their sister financing forum to the tune of HK$10 million ($1.29 million), Wong said.

"We have to persevere, and the Hong Kong government has to continue its support," he said.

Despite the global economic downturn, the subsidy rose this year by more than HK$1 million ($129,000) — a good thing considering that finding sponsorships proved more difficult, Wong said, noting that targets finally were met.

A list of AFA noms can be found at THR-Asia.com. (partialdiff)