On Saturday night, the Chinese movie world split into two.
For the first time, China banned its movies and moviemakers from Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards, nicknamed the “Chinese Oscars” and long considered the most prestigious awards for Chinese-language movies since their establishment in 1962.
Instead, Chinese authorities held their own movie awards, the Golden Rooster, on the same day, just across the strait in the coastal city of Xiamen.
Two red carpets unrolled in two cities at once. Communist Party officials exhorted hundreds of celebrities on one side to make movies about a heroic, strong China that serves the world. Independent filmmakers gathered at the other in Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, playing songs about cherishing freedom.
The movie schism reflects a split across the wider Chinese-language world, with the Chinese Communist Party using its economic and political power to claim cultural authority while Chinese people in the diaspora and on the borders and margins assert a different way of being.
That divide seems unlikely to heal anytime soon.
China’s Golden Horse problem started last year, when Taiwanese documentary filmmaker Fu Yue made a pro-independence statement during her acceptance speech.
“I hope one day our country will be recognized and treated as a truly independent entity. This is my biggest wish as a Taiwanese,” Fu said.
Live TV broadcasts of the awards ceremony in mainland China went dark. Chinese actress Gong Li refused to go onstage with Oscar-winning Taiwanese director and chair of the Golden Horse Committee Ang Lee. Chinese participants reportedly left immediately after the ceremony, skipping the after-party.
Since then, political tensions have only intensified. Beijing banned Chinese films and filmmakers from attending the Golden Horse Awards in August, shortly after also banning solo Chinese travelers from visiting Taiwan.
Luxury car maker Maserati then pulled sponsorship of the Golden Horse, while many Hong Kong filmmakers withdrew participation as well. Five Hong Kong film production companies quickly announced that none of their films or stars would attend the Golden Horse, and Hong Kong director Johnnie To withdrew from his position as president of the Golden Horse jury, citing “contractual obligations.” Taiwanese news reported that Beijing authorities had warned Hong Kong’s filmmakers that any movie nominated for a Golden Horse would not be screened in China, and that stars who attend the awards would be placed on a watch list.
Six months of anti-government and anti-China protests have roiled Hong Kong, and presidential elections are approaching on the self-ruled island of Taiwan, with one candidate promoting economic prosperity through closer ties to Beijing while the incumbent president preaches Taiwanese sovereignty.
China is also under pressure, with recent internal leaks about the party’s concentration camps for Muslim minority Uighurs, accusations of torture from a Hong Konger working for the British Consulate and the defection of a suspected Chinese spy in Australia.
Beijing’s response has been angry defense of its sovereignty while accusing foreign powers of interference and doubling down on ideological control at home.
All this has led to the ramping up of censorship and propaganda, including in the film industry, which was put under direct control of the Communist Party’s propaganda department last year.
A rooster challenges a horse
Hundreds of Chinese celebrities walked thered carpet in Xiamen on Saturday night. Authorities erected a giant golden chicken outside the event venue, announcing that the Golden Rooster would now be held every year instead of every two years — a pointed challenge to the Golden Horse.
Founded in 1981, the Golden Rooster had become a joke in previous years among filmmakers and scholars in China.
“They have been avoiding Golden Rooster for years because it just became like a local officials’ vanity thing — red carpet, big stars, and sort of a window dressing event for attracting investment.… Just very superficial and commercialized, and they found that ridiculous,” said Zhen Zhang, director of the Asian Film & Media Initiative at NYU.
But given this year’s political orders, Chinese filmmakers quickly fell in line.
Central Propaganda Department director Huang Kunming spoke at the opening ceremony, calling on filmmakers to study the “important guiding spirit of General Secretary Xi Jinping,” implement “socialist core values” and build “Chinese spirit, Chinese values, Chinese power.”
Big names including Jackie Chan and Zhang Yimou then lined up onstage, pledging one by one to make films that showcase China to the world.
The best film award went to “The Wandering Earth,” a sci-fi film about Chinese astronauts saving the planet.
Other “red” films including “The Bugle from Gutian,” a story about communist revolutionary troops, and “Operation Red Sea,” an action film about Chinese special forces rescuing Chinese civilians from a fictional Arab country, took home awards as well.
Honest, socially critical films are also among the winners. Wang Xiaoshuai’s “So Long, My Son,” a deeply moving intergenerational epic about two families living through the traumas of the one-child policy, won both best actor and actress.
From silver screen to red screen
The revamped Golden Rooster reflects China’s priorities: domestic control over soft power abroad, bolstered by the security of a huge market that can fulfill its commercial needs, whatever the rest of the world thinks of its behavior.
“They want cultural authority,” said Wang Zhuoyi, a professor of Chinese-language cinema at Hamilton College in New York. “They want to set the standards.”
Beijing-based director Zhang Yibai, 56, started out 20 years ago making arthouse movies geared toward foreign festivals. He’s now creating commercial and patriotic films instead, such as “My People, My Country,” a 2½-hour patriotic drama created for the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic.
The film features seven short segments by seven prominent directors, each recounting a key moment in China’s 70 years of history: Mao Tse-tung raising the first flag, Hong Kong’s handover, the Beijing Olympics and so on.
Zhang’s segment was a romance story set against the background of China’s first nuclear bomb. A young scientist sacrifices his romantic relationship for the sake of national technological advancement. The woman he left cries, moved, as she realizes that he has given up their love for China’s sake.
Zhang said his goal is to create films that reflect ordinary Chinese people’s experiences and emotions. One of those emotions, especially among Chinese youth today, is patriotism.
“They have a stronger sense of national pride and ethnic identification. This is something you can’t ignore, when you’re making a movie like this,” he said.
Zhang also produced “Us and Them,” a Taiwanese-directed romance film that was nominated for both last year’s Golden Horse and this year’s Golden Rooster Awards, though it won neither.
He recently finished producing “Leap,” a movie about the Chinese women’s national volleyball team starring Gong Li, scheduled for release in January.
The combination of commercial filmmaking and government messaging is proving successful within mainland China, even if the rest of the world doesn’t care to watch patriotic Chinese films.
The all-time top box office hit in China, for example, is “Wolf Warrior 2,” an action movie about a Chinese rescue operation in Africa that made $854 million in China but had little resonance abroad.
That doesn’t necessarily matter to China, said Stanley Rosen, professor of political science at USC. China is on its way to becoming the largest film market in the world and doesn’t need foreign markets or approval to achieve its movie goals.
“The China market is big enough,” Rosen said.
Soft power still matters, he added — that’s why China invests in Confucius institutes, tries to buy Hollywood studios and puts money into American films. But it’s not as important as pleasing the party leadership.
“What they care about more is to be in line with what Xi Jinping wants,” Rosen said.
Meanwhile in Taiwan, the Golden Horse Awards turned outward. The ceremony opened with a Broadway-style song and dance performed in Taiwanese dialect, with lyrics pointedly saying: You can use any language/ no matter where you’re from/ movies link our hearts together
Bereft of Chinese films, which have won major accolades in the last few Golden Horse awards, the Golden Horse nominated films from Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan, with a swing toward independent movies that tackled topics unlikely to pass censors in China.
Lau Kek-huat, 40, a Malaysian filmmaker who was nominated for best documentary and best new director, said his documentary “The Tree Remembers,” which explores racism in Malaysia, couldn’t get past censors in Malaysia or in China.
The film confronts Chinese viewers as both victims and perpetrators of racism by depicting Malay privilege over the Chinese and Chinese privilege over indigenous people in Malaysia.
It’s not a popular message, he said, especially among younger Malaysian Chinese, many of whom have grown up with pro-China media and align themselves with Beijing.
“They are happy to identify with a strong country. Especially if they’ve always been victims — if a strong country helps us, they are happy,” he said.
Lau’s previous documentary, “Absent Without Leave,” a story about his grandfather and the taboo history of Chinese Communists in pre-independence Malaysia, was also not allowed in either country.
“If I was smarter, I wouldn’t do this. Where is my market?” Lau said. As a member of the Chinese diaspora, he’s a minority in both Malaysia and the Chinese-speaking world.
But the Chinese boycott of Golden Horse has created opportunity for voices like his to surface.
“On the one hand there’s this unfortunate divide” between the two awards, said Wang, the Hamilton College professor. “On the other hand, you’re actually bridging some other divide that has existed in the past.”
“Golden Horse gives me an affirmation that my film can be seen,” Lau said. “Taiwan is the last place to do this freely in the Chinese-speaking world. I’ll continue as long as I can.”
The Taiwanese movie “Detention,” a thriller about a period of “White Terror” under authoritarian rule in Taiwan’s past, won five awards. Composer Lu Luming, who won best original film score, dedicated the movie’s theme song to “everyone in Hong Kong who holds to their ideals.”
“I hope you can live in peace and freedom,” Lu said as the audience cheered.
If there is no reconciliation between the Golden Horse and the Golden Rooster, Chinese-language filmmakers will have to choose a side: China’s market, with its inherent censorship and propaganda, or creative freedom, at the cost of the world’s second largest film market and 1.4 billion Chinese viewers.
“Both are diminished,” Rosen said. “The Chinese film industry is diminished by not taking part in the Golden Horse, and the Golden Horse is diminished because it’s now become just a regional festival.”
Mainland filmmakers, who don’t have a choice, are trying to remain optimistic. “Every Chinese director is making his own films. As long as there are films being made, it’s a good thing,” said Zhang, the Beijing-based director.
At the Golden Horse, director Ang Lee voiced hope that the two can come back together.
“Our arms will always be open,” he said. “Chinese-language movies, directors, we welcome you. Whatever happens in the outside world, as filmmakers, we have this big, loving family that we cherish very much.”
Whether the “family” can reunite, however, remains to be seen.