With no mainstream Chinese films showing for the third year in a row, Taiwan’s biggest film festival may have lost its luster, but directors and critics say it remains a crucial bulwark against censors from Beijing.
Long dubbed the “Oscars” in the Chinese language, the Golden Horse Film Awards kick off in Taipei on Saturday – again without the legion of Chinese filmmakers and stars who once walked the red carpet.
It clashed in 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.
China claims self-governing Taiwan as part of its territory to be recaptured one day, by force if necessary.
There were no films from the mainland on the 2019 nominations list after China’s National Film Committee ordered directors and actors to boycott the event.
Several Hong Kong films dropped out as international sponsors cut ties with the awards that year under pressure from Beijing.
Although boycott plans were not spelled out for the next two years, mainland commercial cinema and some advertisers continued to stay away.
Hong Kong director Jun Li, whose social drama “Drifting” is one of this year’s awards favorites, said it was “obvious” that the strained relationship between China and Taiwan affected the awards.
“Anyone would be lying if they told you they don’t feel the tension,” he told AFP.
Li’s film has the most nominations at 12, including Best Picture and Best Director, and it tackles Hong Kong’s notorious inequalities with a story of homeless people taking authorities to court.
– “Court Trouble” – Chinese films once dominated Golden Horse nominations, but last year and this year only two mainland films were in the shortlist for Best Documentary and Best Animated Short.
More than 200 Chinese and Hong Kong films have been screened in competition this year, organizers say, although film industry sources say they were mostly independent productions unlikely to hit theaters.
Analysts say traditional Chinese cinema has stayed on the sidelines for fear of repercussions.
“For Chinese mega-productions of commercial films, submitting to the Golden Horse Awards can be a problem,” Wonder Weng of the Taiwan Film Critics Society told AFP.
Weng added that the Golden Roosters – the mainland’s top film awards – were held this year on the same night as the Golden Horse bash.
“This apparently sends the message that there is a rivalry,” he said.
Golden Horse continues to name the genre of films that will never overtake Chinese censors.
This year, two Hong Kong films that explore the city’s 2019 pro-democracy protests, as well as a Chinese documentary on Tibet, are nominated.
A Chinese animation seen as a metaphor for the unrest in Hong Kong and the authoritarian regime in Beijing was also praised.
China has imposed a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong, once a thriving cinema hub, to crush dissent, and new continental-style political censorship rules have been introduced for films.
In a recent example, authorities blocked the screening of Taiwanese short film “Piglet Piglet” unless scenes relating to the island’s 2020 election were deleted, which the director refused.
– “Free Outlet” – Film critic Weng says the Golden Horse Awards “set 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 were awarded, and one of the winners proclaimed his support for democracy activists in a acceptance speech read by a representative.
“I think the award has now become a free outlet, especially for Hong Kong films that cannot be distributed in Hong Kong,” said Hong Kong director Kiwi Chow, who has a nomination this year.
“This gives film producers a way out in the current political climate,” he told AFP.
Chow’s “Revolution of Our Times,” which takes its name from a pro-democracy protest slogan, is shortlisted for best documentary and has never been shown commercially in Hong Kong.
He also sold the rights and masters overseas to avoid Hong Kong’s new censorship and national security laws.
Hong Kongers Rex Ren and Lam Sum are in the running for Best New Director for their feature film “May You Stay Forever Young”, which is also set against the backdrop of pro-democracy protests.
Another critics’ top pick for best documentary is Chinese director Jin Huaqing’s “Dark Red Forest,” about how some 20,000 Tibetan nuns are forced to give up practicing their faith under Chinese rule.
“I am happy to see that the awards (Golden Horse) have managed to keep their courage,” Chow told AFP. “I think that’s also what art is meant to pursue.”