Asia-Pacific films, locations and actors at the Oscars

Oscar statuettes backstage at the Oscars on Sunday, Feb. 28, 2016, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. Pic: AP.

WITH the 88th Academy Awards in Hollywood taking place today, it’s disappointing to note that there were few Asia-Pacific films, actors, actresses, directors or other professionals among this year’s finalists, besides Studio Ghibli’s When Marnie Was There and Pakistani filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s A Girl in the River: the Price of Forgiveness.

However, films from the region have been nominated over the years featuring its stunning landscapes, cultures and backdrops, along with its many talented directors and actors/actresses. While there are of course numerous other film awards and accolades to be noted, the list below takes us on a stroll down the Asia-Pacific’s Oscars hall of fame.

Best Picture 

Ang Lee’s breathtaking 2012 film Life of Pi was nominated for the Best Picture award at the 85th Academy Awards. The film featured the Indian actor Suraj Sharma as the young Pi stranded in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. He was born in New Delhi and chosen by Ang for his expressive eyes and innocence. It was his film debut, made more remarkable as much of the film is a solo act and it hinges around his performance. The first half of the film was shot on location in Pondicherry, south India in its beautiful old French quarter. Ang Lee’s film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon had also been nominated for the Best Picture award in 2000, but actually won the Foreign Language Film category that year.

The French Quarter in Pondicherry. Pic: The Guardian.

The French Quarter in Pondicherry used for filming in Life of Pi. Pic: The Guardian.

The beautiful A Room with a View (1986) was shot very far from any Asia-Pacific soil, but the producer, Ismail Merchant, was an Indian-born film producer and director, working on other famed productions such as Howard’s End (1991) and The Remains of the Day (1993), which were also nominated for Best Picture in their respective years. Merchant was born in Mumbai and went to New York when he was 22 where he was able to persuade Indian delegates to fund his film projects. He collaborated with director James Ivory and they formed the production company Merchant Ivory Productions, the longest partnership in independent cinema history that produced nearly 40 films, including some award winners.

Kiwi director Peter Jackson has of course put New Zealand well and truly on the cinema map and has been regularly nominated for Best Picture and Best Director awards at the Academy, particularly for The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The culmination of this series, The Return of the King (2003), won in three categories including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay in 2004.  This film featured some of the most dramatic of the New Zealand landscapes and include Hobbiton at Matamata, Mount Doom at Mount Ruapehu, the Paths of the Dead at the Pinnacles and the Ride of the Rohirrim in Twizel.

An Air New Zealand Boeing 777-300 aircraft decorated with scenes and characters from The Hobbit. Pic: AP.

An Air New Zealand Boeing 777-300 aircraft decorated with scenes and characters from The Hobbit. Pic: AP.

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Best Actor and Supporting Actor 

Ben Kingsley has twice been nominated for a Best Actor award and won in 1982 for his portrayal of Mahatma Gandhi in Gandhi. Though he was born in England, his father was of Gujarati descent. For this reason, his portrayal of such an important Indian figure and because the film was shot almost entirely in India it has been included in this list. Gandhi’s enormous funeral scene in the film was filmed at the Viceroy’s Palace in Delhi, where the real event took place, and has a Guinness World Record for its 300,000 extras. The assassination was also filmed where it actually happened in Gandhi Smitri in New Delhi. The film was actually nominated in 11 categories and won in eight, including Best Picture. The first Asian actor to win an Academy Award was Yul Brynner for this portrayal of King Mongkut of Siam in The King and I (1956).  Brynner was of Mongolian Buryat descent but born in Russia.

Asian actors have done quite well in the category of Best Supporting Actor over the years. In 2003, the versatile Ken Watanabe (Japan) was nominated for his portrayal of Lord Katsumoto in The Last Samurai. Some scenes in this film were shot in Kyoto and Himeji (Engyō-ji temple complex) but the majority were shot in the Taranaki region of New Zealand because of its vast forest and farmland surroundings, and because Mount Taranaki could stand in for Mount Fuji. Ken Watanabe has also received critical acclaim for his role as the Chairman in Memoirs of a Geisha (some scenes shot in Kyoto), his portrayal of businessman Saito in Inception (initial scenes shot in Tokyo) and his role in Letters from Iwo Jima (special permission was granted to film some scenes on Iwo Jima).

Ken Watanabe in The Last Samurai. Pic: electroshadow.com

Ken Watanabe in The Last Samurai. Pic: electroshadow.com

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Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress 

Asian actresses have done quite well in the Best Supporting Actress category. The first Asian to win in the category was Miyoshi Umeki in 1957 for the film Sayonara; however, most readers will probably remember Rinko Kikuchi’s (Japan) fantastic portrayal of the deaf-mute girl in the 2006 film Babel or Hailee Steinfeld (American-Filipino) in the Coen brothers’ 2010 western True Grit. The Japanese scenes in Babel were filmed in Tokyo and feature the Ishioka City Centre Gymansium, the J-Pop Cafe in Shibuya, the famed Shibuya crossing and the Womb nightclub also in Shibuya.

Moving to Australia, the blonde, elfin-featured Cate Blanchett has won two Academy awards. The first was as a supporting actress for her portrayal of Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator (2005). In 2014, she won the Leading Actress category for Blue Jasmine (2013). Blanchett has been widely received on stage and in numerous films, including her prized role as Galadriel in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies.

Rinko Kikuchi

Rinko Kikuchi in Babel. Pic: imgkid.com

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Best Director 

Ang Lee has been nominated three times in this category for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Life of Pi (2012). He won the category in the last two films, becoming the first Asian to win it in 2005.  Lee grew up in an agricultural county in Taiwan. He went to the U.S. in 1979, intent on being an actor, but he turned to directing when he struggled to speak English. As noted above under best picture, Kiwi Peter Jackson won a Best Director award for The Return of the King. He was also nominated in this category for the Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers.

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Best Foreign Language Film 

Ang Lee’s 2000 film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was nominated for no less than 11 Academy awards, winning in four categories (Best Foreign Language Film, Best Art Direction, Best Original Score and Best Cinematography). This film from Taiwan featured an international cast of ethnic Chinese actors, but as each had different accents, this made it challenging. The actors also performed their own stunts with some incredible martial arts and action sequences. The film was made in Beijing and included superb locations in the provinces of Anhui, Hebei, Jiangsu and Xinjiang. Some of the scenes were also shot in the Gobi Desert.

Ang Lee poses with his award for best directing for "Life of Pi" during the Oscars at the Dolby Theatre on Sunday Feb. 24, 2013, in Los Angeles. (Photo by John Shearer/Invision/AP)

Ang Lee poses with his award for Best Director for “Life of Pi” during the Oscars at the Dolby Theatre on Sunday Feb. 24, 2013, in Los Angeles. Pic: AP.