China’s self-defeating Oscar battle

Foreign-language kudo remains elusive

BEIJING — China’s recent haul of gold medals in the Olympics illustrated how fervently the country covets its international honors, but some of the biggest prizes elude it, most notably the Nobel Peace Prize and, of course, the Oscar for foreign-language film.

Chinese B.O. is on track for a record year and much of what is driving that expansion has come from local filmmakers. Many Chinese would love to match this success with international honors.

Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” won four Oscars, including foreign-language film, in 2001, and he scooped a host of honors in 2005 with “Brokeback Mountain.” His successes were warmly welcomed in China as great national achievements, but with a certain reserve: As a Taiwanese helmer, his pedigree is less polished. Beijing would love to see a “pure” Chinese movie from mainland China — in Chinese with Chinese actors — win the kudos.

And yet each year sees the nomination get bogged down in political wranglings.

When Lee won best director for “Brokeback Mountain,” his speech on Chinese TV was cut to remove references to Taiwan (Beijing considers Taiwan a renegade province that it is prepared to take back by force if necessary) and also to Hong Kong. Plus, the pic’s homosexual theme meant it was not shown on the mainland.

Last year there was debate about whether Lee’s “Lust, Caution” would be China’s entry in the foreign-language category, as the movie takes place in Shanghai and is in Mandarin. Lee’s Taiwanese status, combined with significant U.S. input into the pic, meant there was no way this was ever going to happen.

This year, China has entered “Dream Weavers,” a docu about the Beijing Olympics. Whether this is a calculated policy hoping that good will generated by the Olympics could translate into positive sentiment from the Academy, or whether it is a sign that Beijing’s heart is not in the competition, is hard to read.

Certainly China’s continued failure to win the foreign-language category is causing frustration. The biz is producing what most would consider suitable contenders, such as Feng Xiaogang’s “Assembly,” but instead a documentary was chosen.

“Dream Weavers” is not exactly setting the public imagination on fire.

“I haven’t seen ‘Dream Weaver,’ ” says advertising executive Liu Yingjun. “I am just wondering why China recommended a documentary (for the) Oscar, as it makes our chances of winning slim. China’s contribution for the Olympics was huge, but it’s difficult to win (a foreign-language) Oscar with a documentary.”

Websites are filled with debates about whether Chinese filmmakers should follow the Western model – especially Hollywood – in a bid to win, or whether to be true to the Chinese filmmaking tradition. A movie commentator on Xinhua.net wrote a well-circulated angry article entitled “Chinese films should not pay a lot of attention to the Oscar,” typical of much of the Oscar opposition. The webizen said in part:

“In recent years, China’s most famous directors Zhang Yimou, Feng Xiaogang and Chen Kaige have all tried hard to win the foreign-language Oscar. But the result is that only Ang Lee, a Taiwanese director, has won the award. China does not lack for good films. Why do we care so much about an ‘academy award’ from America?”

One answer, of course, is that in the biz, helmers in China, as everywhere, hope their movies will gain international exposure and believe that winning the Oscar is a 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.

“China should say no to Oscar,” wrote Qin Zilin of Sina news service. “Oscar is produced by American people. Whether it can win is decided by 4,000 American film people. The problem is to do with the Oscars, not with the Asian filmmakers.”

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