Chinese feast on Oscar hype

Web sites, cable TV help stir debates

BEIJING — China loves Oscar — some 22 million Chinese gather around the TV to watch the big night each year. Music to the ears of the Academy, no doubt, as it battles falling viewership Stateside, and to Hollywood studios for building brand recognition in Asia, although interest among Chinese auds is very much focused on seeing if local pics or helmers make the grade. Still, even in years when the country is not repped at the awards, a large number tune in, fueled by the rise of the celebrity hype found on new cable TV outlets and the web.

The Oscars are aired live on CCTV6, one of the channels of state broadcaster CCTV, the world’s biggest broadcaster, with a viewership of 1 billion people.

“Showing the Oscar ceremony has become a routine that we do annually, and (we will have) similar coverage of this year’s award. We have a big audience because we have a huge viewership in China generally,” says a CCTV spokeswoman, adding that an expected audience of 22 million amounts to around 2% of the total audience.

Just like everywhere else, auds are interested in whether there will be any domestic film stars showing up on the red carpet, either as nominees or guests, or to simply show off new frocks.

Chances are …

The focus in the Chinese newspapers ahead of the awards is largely on China’s chances, although the global obsession with Hollywood celebs is making increasing inroads into Chinese newspapers and on the tube. Indeed, the fortunes of Steven Spielberg are closely watched, since he is consulting with China’s leading helmer Zhang Yimou (who has regularly been churning out Oscar-nominated martial arts costumers) on the opening and closing ceremonies for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

Online it’s a different story, as well as on the entertainment TV channels popping up all over the country, such as Enlight Media. Here, the focus is on everything from what the stars will wear on Oscar night to anecdotes about competing films.

Websites are filled with debates over whether Chinese filmmakers should follow the Western model, especially Hollywood’s, in a bid to win more Oscars, or whether to be true to the Chinese filmmaking tradition.

“Although winning an Oscar represents a certain kind of achievement, it shouldn’t be the only standard to judge the quality of a film,” one post reads. “Before our Chinese directors set their eyes on Oscar, we want good domestic movies; they’re better than Hollywood blockbusters.”

Webizen Zhang Hongkai wrote on a bulletin board connected to the official Xinhuanet website how Oscar aspirations highlighted the lack of good screenplays. “Chinese filmmakers simply rely on fancy costumes and kung fu stunts to please a foreign audience,” he wrote.

On the Beijing Youth bulletin board, a netizen named Hua Shan Sword claimed the Oscars were a sign of pollution by commercial interests: “This will kill the arts and leave us trapped in the pitfall of trashing Chinese traditional aesthetics.”

In the biz, helmers in China, as everywhere, hope their movies will gain international exposure and believe, rightly, that winning an Oscar is a perfect way of achieving that. Culturally, the possibility that a Chinese film will be watched and enjoyed — or even understood — abroad is significant, as there is a widespread belief that Chinese films don’t make the international cut. Hence the outbreak of nationalist glee every time a Chinese director wins an award — regardless of whether the pic is shown in China or not.

All politics is local

As with everything in China, the political is never far away.

A classic example of this is Ang Lee, whose “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” won four Oscars, including the foreign-language film gong, in 2001.

The Taiwanese helmer is much feted in China, but the fact he comes from Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province it is prepared to take back by force if necessary, is politically awkward. The Taiwanese claim the helmer as their own, as he is from the self-ruled island, which occasionally threatens to declare independence, prompting threats of invasion from across the Strait of Taiwan.

When Lee won director kudos for “Brokeback Mountain” in 2006, his speech on mainland Chinese TV was cut to remove references to Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” set a new template for Chinese Oscar contenders, including Zhang, whose style radically changed after the success of “Crouching Tiger”; hence his costume chopsocky epic “Hero,” in 2002 and his subsequent Oscar-nommed pics underscore the point that Western auds can only digest Chinese costumers.

This year, there was some debate in the media about whether Lee’s latest pic, “Lust, Caution,” would be China’s entry in the foreign-language Oscar category, because the movie takes place in Shanghai and Hong Kong and is in Mandarin. Lee’s Taiwanese nationality, combined with the huge U.S. input (i.e., money) into pic, means there was no way this was going to happen, but it did cause a stir on the mainland.

Lee is unwilling to ruffle feathers among the powers that be in Beijing — he is also involved in promoting the Olympics and needs auds on the mainland, which is increasingly important as a source of B.O. “Lust, Caution” is storming the Chinese box office, just as it did in Hong Kong, although seven minutes of graphic sex have been cut from the pic to produce a more chaste version (China has no ratings classification system).

But rest assured everyone in China will be cheering him on as a native son on the night of Feb. 24.

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