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After Golden Horse Awards Embarrassment, China Orders Talent Home for Huabiao Ceremony

China’s government quietly ordered top Chinese talent back to the mainland from abroad this past weekend to attend a Beijing ceremony for its highest film industry honors, the loosely bi-annual Huabiao Awards. The move came just weeks after it directed mainland film executives and talent to snub after-parties and return home as quickly as possible from the Golden Horse Awards in Taipei in the wake of one winner’s controversial pro-Taiwanese independence acceptance speech.

Director Chen Kaige (“Farewell My Concubine”), the jury president at this year’s International Film Festival and Awards Macao, which began Saturday, was summoned back to China for the Huabiao Awards and missed Macao’s opening festivities. Actress Yao Chen, known for her roles in Chinese hits “Monster Hunt” and last year’s “Journey to the West 2,” was also called back to Beijing for Saturday’s festivities, but managed to return to Macao the very next day. (The IFFAM runs through Friday.)

At a ceremony in Beijing’s Water Cube, an aquatic center built for the 2008 Olympics, Huabiao honored some of the most flag-waving films to come out of China in the past two years. That is no surprise for a government-run event, sponsored by the industry regulator in charge of censorship.

Hong Kong-born Dante Lam won best director for his patriotic action hit “Operation Red Sea,” while Wu Jing, director and star of the equally nationalistic “Wolf Warrior 2,” was crowned best actor. Jin Chen won best actress for her role in last year’s “Hold Your Hands,” a drama based on the true story of the village visited by Chinese President Xi Jinping when he first proposed a key national policy of poverty alleviation.

Ten movies were recognized as “outstanding feature films,” including the three mentioned above, Lam’s similar 2016 action flick “Operation Mekong,” and “The Founding of an Army, a work commissioned by the government to celebrate the People’s Liberation Army’s 90th anniversary.

Named for a traditional Chinese architectural element known as the “huabiao” – a type of ceremonial winged column – the awards are some of the mainland’s top prizes, alongside the Golden Rooster and Hundred Flowers Awards. The main attraction, however, may be the generous cash prizes, which act as a further subsidy for patriotic titles.

Though Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards ceremony, sometimes known as the “Chinese Oscars,” garners much more attention, some say its future as the preeminent Chinese-language award show may be imperiled after this year’s ceremony became a platform for dissent. Taiwan-based director Fu Yue, winner in the best documentary category for “Our Youth in Taiwan,” took to the stage to express her wish that the self-governed island nation could one day “be treated as a truly independent entity.” The speech caused concern over whether mainland talent would participate in next year’s event, with some insiders saying that the incident inspired Chinese authorities to go the extra mile in ensuring that this year’s Huabiao was particularly well-attended.

More than 300 A-listers such as director Zhang Yimou, actress Zhang Ziyi and Jackie Chan patiently sat through an evening full of government rhetoric.

“‘One Belt, One Road’ has created a bridge linking the ‘Chinese Dream’ to a global dream,” said the evening’s host, referring to the Communist Party’s much-touted global infrastructure project and a slogan popularized by Chinese President Xi. “We believe that in the future there will be even more Chinese films shining on the world stage,” he continued, introducing a song-and-dance number called “Taking an Ocean Voyage” that featured, improbably, heartthrob rapper Kris Wu, whose own songs boast more about money blown on handsome women than the peaceful spread of Chinese culture.

Online, forums were quick to mock the star-studded event, with users asking, “Did they all come to pay their taxes??” A popular response replied: “It’s also possible they’ve come to discuss new ways of stealing taxes.”

The banter refers to fallout from a tax-evasion scandal that engulfed mega-star Fan Bingbing earlier this year, which sparked an industry-wide tightening of tax regulatory policy that has created massive uncertainties for production companies and talent alike.

Last week, Chinese media reports surfaced saying that even Wu Jing’s “Wolf Warrior 2” had been singled out as needing to pay back taxes, leading an upset fan to ask: “So the patriotic film was not so patriotic after all?”

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