TAIPEI — Armed with a new Oscar, helmer Ang Lee has taken his place — along with hand puppets and star-crossed lovers — on the frontlines of a public relations war between China and Taiwan.
Most historians and politicians agree the two sides of the Taiwan Strait split after a civil war in mainland China in 1949. However, opinions differ on whether Taiwan remains a part of China, or if it ever was. To outsiders, the distinction may seem like splitting hairs — but the divisive issue influences everything from national policy by both governments to the awarding of film grants.
Taiwan hopes to use its pics, which regularly win awards on the fest circuit, as a way to increase the island’s profile in the international community.
“We encourage and nurture productions that present a positive view of Taiwan’s culture and history,” producer and politico Peggy Chou says.
Thus, island intelligentsia hail Taiwan-born Lee as an inspiration to local filmmakers. In the weeks after Oscar night, the “Brokeback Mountain” helmer received honorary degrees from universities and the praise of Taiwan’s president himself, who singles out Lee’s talent for using Asian sensibilities to tell universal stories.
Not to be outdone, China also claims Lee as a native son and has elevated him to the status of national hero. That didn’t stop mainland authorities from censoring Lee’s concluding remarks on Oscar night. In a moment of ethnic pride, the helmer thanked “everybody in Taiwan, Hong Kong and China” — a declaration that could be interpreted as a subversive attempt to establish the three areas as separate from each other.
While Taiwan trumpets its position as one of Asia’s most vibrant democracies, it also shows no qualms about banning productions from shooting on the island because of what it views as a pic’s historical inaccuracies.
Earlier this month, politicos prevented Chinese-Taiwan co-production “Cloud Water Song” from filming. Historical romance set during the turbulent 1940s details Taiwanese lovers who are separated on opposite sides of the Strait. The subtext can be viewed as a reunification tale between China and Taiwan — one of the most sensitive issues on the island.
“The picture misleads audiences into thinking Taiwanese people yearn for reunification,” says Joseph Wu, a senior official in Taiwan’s administration. “We know it’s not a documentary, but it still has an obligation to respect the views of the island’s 22 million people.”
Wu’s high-level involvement emphasizes the explosiveness of cross-Strait issues. The situation gets more complicated because a strong Taiwanese identity has been forged over the decades. Today, many Taiwanese refuse to classify themselves as Chinese.
Even Taiwan’s Pili hand puppets, named after the company that produces TV shows and films, have been recruited in the raging culture war. The puppet shows — voted in an online poll as the best example of traditional Taiwanese art — made it to the U.S. market on the Cartoon Network earlier this year.
Many scholars, pundits and fans in Taiwan complain that with voices dubbed into English, the show loses its distinct Taiwanese flavor and misrepresents Taiwan culture to international audiences. In the local version, one man voices all the characters in the Taiwanese dialect, which is different from the Mandarin Chinese that serves as the official language of China.
Keep in mind that Taiwan often participates in international events like the Olympics under an awkward, assumed moniker like “Chinese Taipei” to appease Chinese authorities. Thus, whenever the opportunity presents itself, Taiwan fights to protect and promote its identity abroad.
By now, Ang Lee is a veteran of the ongoing battle. As one pundit humorously noted, when Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” picked up the Oscar trophy for foreign-language pic in 2001, the moment did more to advance Taiwan’s cause than any other in the past decade’s worth of political diplomacy.