The Academy Award submissions for Best Foreign Film in 2015 have been released and when juxtaposed against more regional awards, one can only surmise, that the Best Foreign Film Oscar is set to get it wrong again. Who will make the nominations list won’t be known until January 2015, but it looks like a certainty that the films submitted by China (The Nightingale, a Sino/France co-production) and Taiwan (Ice Poison) won’t make the final cut. Neither were acknowledged by the Queensland–based Asia Pacific Screen awards. Of course, as the APSAs increasingly focus on the Middle East rather than Far East Asia, if you want to know what is going on in Chinese film, it is better to go to the horse’s mouth. Or more precisely, the Golden Horse Awards.
In lazy, journalistic shorthand, the Golden Horse Film Awards is usually summed up as the Chinese Academy Awards. That conjures up images of Asian people in tuxedoes, but does nothing to inform about the array of films on offer. In face, it doesn’t even explain where they take place.
The uninitiated could be forgiven for concluding that the awards take place in China, but, in fact, they take place in the city of Taipei because the Golden Horse Awards were originally – 51 years ago – devised as a way to celebrate Chiang Kai-shek’s birthday, and to support Taiwanese cinema with an emphasis on Mandarin-language films. From early on, however, the then Mandarin-speaking cinema of Hong Kong dominated. The former English colony even continued this domination when Hong Kong turned its lingua franca to Cantonese in the 1970s spearheaded by the popularity of raucous comedy The House of 72 Tenants.
Taiwan’s 1980s New Wave made its impact felt at the Golden Horse, but the most recent game-changer came in 1996 when the rising juggernaut of Mainland Chinese – once regarded as Taiwan’s mortal enemy – was also allowed to participate. So this year, with over 30 films competing across 19 categories (not counting shorts and documentary), there was a wide range of quality films to consider from across the region.
That said, the Chinese Oscar submission didn’t rate a mention there either. The Taiwanese entry, a small indie by Midi Z received a Best Director nod, but as Ice Poison’s sole nomination it seemed like a bureaucratic formality to protect the credibility of the Taiwanese government body that activates the Oscar submission.
When the 2014 Golden Horse Awards was held on Saturday, November 22, Blind Massage scooped the pool, winning six of its seven nominations (Best Feature, Best New Performer, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Sound Effects). Where Blind Massage dipped out was Best Director, which went to Ann Hui for The Golden Era, her biopic about Chinese writer Xiao Hong. Registering visible surprise herself, it’s easy to speculate that the Best Directing award at Golden Horse is more of a nod to Hui’s long and impressive career. The alternative is to conclude that somehow the director Lou Ye was not responsible for synthesising the other six winning elements of Blind Massage. Awards can be funny that way.
But The Golden Era is an indication of the degree of cross pollination in the Chinese-language film industries. The drama takes place in Mainland China, but Hui is a long-time Hong Kong resident, and the film is actually Hong Kong’s submission for the Best Foreign Film Award in next year’s Oscars. Suddenly, Baz Luhrmann’s making of The Great Gatsby in Australia doesn’t seem so odd.
The biggest no show of the Golden Horse was Kano. A baseball movie set in Taiwan’s colonial period, Kano is an entertaining metaphor for regional co-operation, and was the directing debut of indigenous director Umin Boya.
Kano was said to have been the cause for mainstream Mainland Chinese media like Xinhua and Sina not providing their usual coverage of the Golden Horse, as the powers that be were rumoured to be affronted by the fact that 95 percent of Kano’s dialogue is in Japanese. The fact that Japanese actor Masatoshi Nagase (well known to Westerners for Mystery Train and Cold Fever) was nominated for Best Actor clearly indicates that the Golden Horse is driven by nationality and not language that was its original Mandarin focus five decades ago. China overreacted and made themselves look ridiculous in the process. Kano is playing at the BAPFF despite being overlooked by APSA, and is one of those rare films that has both popular and critical appeal, winning both the Golden Horse Film Festival’s Audience prize and the International Film Critics (aka FIPRESCI) prize handed by three film critics, including your humble narrator.
As if to highlight the lack of Golden Horse Awards for Kano, with nationalist fervour Chinese film commentators (and some Sino-wannabees) claimed a cinematic victory for China. A closer analysis of the results, reveals that really two films demolished the competition from Taiwan and China. And while some Taiwanese film fans might have wanted the comfort women drama Paradise in Service to win, it’s clear that Chinese film Black Coal, Thin Ice really got the rough end of the pineapple by only acquiring the Best Art Direction award.
Still, given the number of films that China produces every year, it seems a certainty that Mainland movies will continue to dominate the Golden Horse in years to come. Western film festivals like Berlin, which premiered both Blind Massage and Black Coal, Thin Ice, will offer a sneak preview, but the Golden Horse is still the place to get an idea of the full menu on offer in Chinese language cinema.
While not as widely trumpeted, in a region that pumps out over 500 films per year, even a nomination at the Golden Horse is a significant achievement. Whether Western festivals or distributors pick up on the presence of (take a depth breath) No Man’s Land (China), Exit (Taiwan), North by Northeast (China), The Continent (China), Red Amnesia (China and Lu Zhong nominated by APSA for Best Actress), Meeting Dr Sun (Taiwan), Nezha (China), Coffin in the Mountain (China) at the Golden Horse is up to them. The quality is there. All they have to do is look.