International Oscar Showdown 2009 — Slumdog Millionaire vs Departures

The 81st Academy Awards winners for Best Picture and Best International Feature Film were Slumdog Millionaire and Departures
Movie poster for Slumdog Millionaire
Movie poster for Slumdog Millionaire
Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire

Destiny’s child

The film’s witty structure is based around the Indian franchise of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, and explores how a “chaiwala” from the Mumbai slums could ever reach the final big-money question. Jamal is not an educated boy, you see; it turns out he just happened to live a life that perfectly prepares him for the questions on that one particular gameshow. Conveniently, those questions correspond to events in Jamal’s life in chronological order — it must be destiny!

New kids on the block

The cliché goes: never work with children or animals. But it is to Boyle’s credit that he disregards such reductive advice, for, with the help of co-director Loveleen Tandan, he coaxes astonishing performances out of the children. Indeed, these unexpected star turns are almost a detriment to the rest of the film; the kids go first, so the film begins on a high and ends less so.

All aboard

Up against Slumdog in 2009 was Departures, the first submission from Japan to win Best Foreign-Language Film since it became a competitive award in 1956.

Movie poster for Departures
Movie poster for Departures
Yojiro Takita’s Departures

Video nasties

Meanwhile, Daigo is too ashamed to reveal his new job to Mika, but she discovers the truth when she sees him in Mister Sasaki’s corporate video as a dummy corpse, having his anal cavity dutifully stuffed. When he tries to explain and reaches out to her, she flinches — she would sooner leave him than let him touch her with hands that have cleaned corpses.

Divine comedy

Departures is ostensibly a comedy about death, but also a drama about shame. The two contrasting elements are perfectly balanced, with some cracking laughs sandwiched between moments of solemnity and grief. Take the aforementioned anal-stuffing — poor Daigo is a wincing corpse as Sasaki inserts the cotton bud in the corporate video, but that moment leads immediately to Mika rejecting her husband.

Retrospective result

I liked both of these films immensely, but can only give the victory to one film: and that has to be Slumdog. Despite its hackneyed fatalist melodrama and rather reductive representation of women, it is a constant thrill, visually arresting, and emotionally fraught. The music’s great, the performances are impassioned, and the story is riveting (if ultimately shallow).

Writer of stories, movie reviews, and sundry other whims. Also a sub-editor, so you are welcome to shout at me about typos.

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