Like so many events forced to reschedule (and reimagine) their plans because of the pandemic, the news came fairly early, relatively speaking, that the 2021 Academy Awards would be delayed until April of this year. Also adjusted was the eligibility window for films able to “open” in cinemas (virtual cinemas are allowed) and still qualify for this year’s awards, meaning films didn’t have to rush to screen before the end of the 2020 calendar year as they typically do (although many still did in order to be eligible for other critical bodies honoring the year’s titles, but that’s getting a little too inside baseball…).
Formerly known as the Best Foreign Language Film category, the newly minted Best International Feature Film Award is bestowed on the film deemed “best” from a country other than the United States, presented predominantly in a non-English language. The process for submission remains relatively the same: each country wishing to be considered submits one official entry on their nation’s behalf. The result is dozens of worthy narratives from countries with well-established cinema oeuvres (South Korea, France) and those with less of a known track record (Mongolia, Albania).
In the next month or so, the Academy will shortlist their top selection of international features and eventually announce the final five nominees. In the meantime, submissions from countries all over the world are available to watch from the comfort of home if you’re interested in getting caught up to speed on who’s submitting which films. At the Music Box Theatre, for example, new foreign films are being added every week to their MusicBox Direct platform where these features are available for rent alongside everything else the cinema features while they remain closed to the public (yes, cinemas can re-open now in Illinois, but the Music Box is taking its time to get it right). While there’s a lot to choose from, here are some insights into a selection of what’s now playing:
True Mothers (Japan)
A film by Naomi Kawase, True Mothers is a broad and expansive exploration of motherhood in several iterations, from the perspective of the women navigating their various experiences. Part mystery, part family drama and part journey of self discovery, a lot of what’s here is striking emotional work; much more of it, unfortunately, is lost in the confusion of which film, exactly, we’re watching at any given moment. As the two main storylines intersect and we individually learn more about the two women central to the narrative, just as Kawase gives us the space to invest in one of them, we’ve shifted over to the other and lost any earned momentum in a blink.
Satoko (Hiromi Nagasaku) and Kiyokazu (Arata Iura) Kurihara are a young couple living in a posh high-rise, raising their young son Asato (Reo Sato) with all the privilege and care they can afford. He goes to a good school, they dote on him at home; they’re picture-perfect parents in every way. Which makes it all the more concerning when Asato’s school calls to say he pushed another boy and caused an injury the boy’s parents now want the Kurihara’s to compensate them for. It’s all more than a little unsettling to Satoko, a woman who considers herself an attentive mother who’s child would never do such a thing. We’re flashed back to the day the Kiyokazus adopted the newborn, only seeing the child’s birth mother for a moment before beginning their new life as parents. Through another series of disconnected flashbacks, we learn of the couple’s long struggles to conceive and their coming to terms with whatever options remain to them for becoming parents. This singular narrative proves quite interesting and moving, but the film, based on a novel by Mizuki Tsujimura, has to shift its focus to tell the rest of the story.
It’s to Asato’s young birth mother we turn, a teenager named Hikari (Aju Makita) who found herself unexpectedly pregnant after going too far with her high school boyfriend. A significant portion of the film is then spent on her story, the sweet first love and the devastating news from the doctor; so much time, in fact, that it’s like we’ve shifted into an entirely different film as it’s not quite clear how, besides the young boy himself, these two stories connect. Which is what makes the twisting, non-chronological storyline more frustrating than satisfying; though both women are certainly interesting (and each actor’s performance is commendable), Kawase gets so invested in each of them separately that the film starts to lose any sense of cohesiveness overall.
Which is a shame, really, because the movie itself is a thing of beauty, filmed with a gentle attention to detail and a warmth that radiates off the screen. After discovering she’s pregnant, Hikari’s parents send her to a home for unwed mothers; it’s by the sea, and the setting provides not only one of the film’s more touching themes but some of its most gorgeous shots, too. Though the full impact of True Mothers gets lost in its own tangled, disjointed storylines, there are moments—usually driven by the cast’s commitment to their character’s struggles—that elevate out of the fray. Taken on their own, these offer glimpses into each woman’s experience—at turns heartbreaking, at turns enlightening—that just may make investing in the film worth it.
Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time (Hungary)
Though boasting one of the most unwieldy titles of recent memory, Lili Horvát’s Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time is a sleek, dark romance about Márta (Natasa Stork), a Hungarian neurosurgeon who returns to Budapest from the U.S. after a fleeting encounter with a man she met momentarily at a medical conference. They make plans to meet on a bridge in the capital city a month later, and when he doesn’t show up, she finds herself back in her native country, working at a hospital she’s overqualified to serve and searching for the man she knows in her gut is the love of her life. Crafted as a mystery that unfolds for Marta just as it does for us, every moment of her search for János (Viktor Bodó), the fellow surgeon who struck her heart like a lightning bolt, feels as urgent and necessary and it does unsettling and perhaps all in her head.
Nearing 40, Márta is at a crossroads in her life, an accomplished and respected surgeon who is missing the sense of wholeness that comes with finding a partner. That sense of something missing—and the potential to find it—is what pushes her to take her connection with János so seriously, upending her own life to pursue it (including landing a job at the same hospital where János works). Being abandoned on the bridge is devastating enough; when she does encounter János in the hospital parking lot one day shortly after arriving and he acts as though he doesn’t know her, she’s shattered to pieces. Soon, her life becomes a balancing act of carrying on with her demanding work and nursing her broken heart as she observes from afar as János goes on living his life as if he hasn’t completely broken her. If that all sounds a bit over-the-top, Horvát manages to reign in any potential for “crazy lady” vibes by focusing on Marta’s genuine (and essentially innocent) belief that she and János are meant to be together. Though the film teases at it (and often in enticing ways one wishes it had indulged here and there), this isn’t a violent or dangerous love story; no, what’s at stake here is more precious by far: the fragile human heart.
As Márta continues to circle János, he slowly begins to circle her as well, revealing that their connection may not, as we’ve been led to believe, be all in Márta’s head. Or is it? Their interactions are largely defined by exchanged glances from across a crowded room, and when they do evolve into something more, the film’s deliciously unreliable sense of reality leaves one wondering if what’s happening is actually happening at all. As two people with a shared spark and no idea how to acknowledge or act on it, Stork and Bodó are captivating, their chemistry nearly combustible. With all this momentum earned in the film’s first two acts, Horvát admittedly loses some steam as the film nears its conclusion; the anticipation of the thing is often more intense than the thing itself, after all. As she draws her characters closer together over the course of the film, she smartly imbues them with the very real flaws, insecurities and complications, boring as they may be, that are bound to appear when one’s object of desire shifts from fantasy to reality. Preparations to Be Together… finds interesting and inventive ways to explore the nuances of all of this with a decidedly dark Hitchockian vibe that makes the whole affair a will-they-won’t-they thrill ride.
My Little Sister (Switzerland)
The bond between siblings is undeniable. The bond between twins, nearly unbreakable. Such is the case in My Little Sister, a bracing and tender film by Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond, a film that explores that close connection as twins Sven (Lars Eidinger) and Lisa (born moments after him; played by Nina Hoss) confront his diagnosis with a terminal illness and the reality that they may not always be together. Both successful creatives, the cancer diagnosis has not only derailed Sven’s stage acting career, but its seen Lisa sideline her own writing work as she focuses intensely on Sven’s care and hopes for his recovery. In addition to tending to her dear brother, she’s also mother to two children and married to Martin (Jens Albinus), who’s pursuing his own professional growth as an administrator at an elite school.
The center of My Little Sister revolves around Lisa, and Hoss’s vibrant, committed performance as a woman trying to juggle everything thrown at her while carving out the space to grieve for the brother she’s losing and the hole inside her that will be caused by his absence. Though she seems to be a woman who can do it all, a woman who can be the person everyone needs to her be in a given moment, her façade starts to crack as Sven’s illness worsens and it demands more and more of her attention. Not that she’d begrudge any of it; she wants to be with him, needs to be with him. She’s willing to miss out on time with her own family, to put her own marriage on the line if Martin can’t understand that right now, she needs to be there for Sven. Moments of Hoss’s performance spark with such visceral desperation it’s almost furious; she’s trying so hard, she’s angry she can’t be more, be enough.
In an interesting statement on family relationships (in a film filled with them), Sven and Lisa’s mother Kathy (Marthe Keller) seems no where near as concerned about Sven’s condition. She’s on hand to critique Lisa’s approach or comment on something as Lisa breezes by between her many obligations, but she seems downright disassociated compared to Lisa’s fanatical attention to Sven and his condition. Which, naturally, is sort of the point—that all of Lisa’s fussing and attention isn’t actually about Sven and his challenges but about what Lisa is (and isn’t) ready to face in her own life. In an effort to give Sven something to look forward to, she asks their theater troupe director to cast him in their latest show; it’s as much for her brother as it is for her, as both of them grasp to find something familiar to attach to as they face all the uncertainty ahead. The film is at its most powerful when both Sven and Lisa let their guards down, if only momentarily, and all that they’ve been trying to push through, to work through (or to just outright ignore) comes rushing in.
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