With no mainstream Chinese films showing for the third year running, Taiwan’s top film festival may have lost some luster, but directors and critics say it remains a crucial bulwark against Beijing’s censors.
Long dubbed the Chinese-language “Oscars,” the Golden Horse Film Awards will kick off in Taipei tomorrow — again without the legion of Chinese filmmakers and stars who once used to walk the red carpet. It ran afoul of Beijing when a Taiwanese director called for the island’s independence in an acceptance speech at the 2018 ceremony, triggering an official boycott the following year.
There were no mainland films in the 2019 nomination list after China’s national film board ordered directors and actors to boycott the event.
Several Hong Kong films dropped out while international sponsors cut ties with the awards that year under pressure from Beijing.
While plans to boycott were not spelled out the following two years, commercial Chinese cinema and some advertisers have continued to steer clear.
Hong Kong director Jun Li (李駿碩), whose social drama Drifting is a frontrunner at this year’s awards, said it was “obvious” that strained relations between China and Taiwan have affected the awards.
“Anyone would be lying if they tell you they don’t feel the tension,” he said.
Li’s film has the most nominations at 12, including best film and best director, and it tackles Hong Kong’s notorious inequality with a story of homeless people taking authorities to court.
Chinese films once dominated the nominations but last year and this year saw just two films in the running, for best documentary and best animated short film.
According to organizers, over 200 Chinese and Hong Kong films submitted for competition this year, although film industry sources say they were mostly independent productions unlikely to hit theaters.
Analysts say mainstream Chinese cinema stayed away for fear of repercussions.
“For mega-production Chinese commercial movies, submitting to the Golden Horse awards can be courting trouble,” Wonder Weng, from the Taiwan Film Critics Society, said.
Weng added that the Golden Roosters — the mainland’s own premier film awards — was being held this year on the same night as the Golden Horse bash.
“This apparently sends a message that there is a rivalry,” he said.
Golden Horse continues to nominate the kind of films that would never get past China’s censors.
This year two Hong Kong films that explore the city’s 2019 pro-democracy protests, as well as a Chinese documentary about Tibet, are nominated. A Chinese animation seen as a metaphor for Hong Kong’s unrest and Beijing’s authoritarian rule has also been given a nod. China has imposed a sweeping national security law in Hong Kong, once a thriving cinema hub, to crush dissent, and new Chinese-style political censorship rules have been introduced for films.
In one recent example, authorities blocked the screening of Taiwanese short film Piglet Piglet unless scenes relating to the island’s elections last year were removed, which the director refused.
Film critic Weng says the Golden Horse awards “sets the benchmark” for Chinese-language cinema as the only platform open to all subjects.
Last year, two Hong Kong films that cast an uncomfortable spotlight on China won accolades, and one of the winners proclaimed support for democracy activists in an acceptance speech read by a representative.
“I think the award has now become a free outlet especially for Hong Kong movies that cannot be distributed in Hong Kong,” said Hong Kong director Kiwi Chow (周冠威), who has a nomination this year.
“It gives film producers a way out under the current political climate,” he said.
Chow’s Revolution of Our Times (時代革命), which takes its name from a pro-democracy protest slogan, is contending for best documentary and has never been shown commercially in Hong Kong.
He has also sold the rights and masters overseas to avoid Hong Kong’s new censorship and national security laws.
Fellow Hong Kongers Rex Ren (任俠) and Lam Sum (林森) are vying for best new director for their feature film May You Stay Forever Young (少年), which is also set against the backdrop of the pro-democracy protests.
Another critics’ top pick for best documentary is Dark Red Forest (絳紅森林) by Chinese director Jin Huaqing (金華青), on how some 20,000 Tibetan nuns are forced to give up practicing their faith under China’s rule.
“I am gratified to see that the [Golden Horse] awards have managed to keep their courage,” Chow said. “I think that’s also what art is meant to pursue.”
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