Despite rising political antagonism, China and Taiwan have for years been able to put aside their differences for a night of shared glitz and glamour at the annual Taipei-based Golden Horse Awards, known as Asia’s Oscars. But with cross-strait relations at a nadir, that’s about to change. 

Chinese-language cinema is set for a showdown the weekend of Nov. 22-24, when China’s Communist Party-approved film awards, the biannual Golden Roosters, go head-to-head with the Golden Horse Awards on the same exact day. In a retaliatory move, Beijing has scheduled its ceremony to coincide with Taipei’s event, which itself angered mainland nationalists in 2018 by honoring a pro-Taiwan independence filmmaker. Chinese authorities have banned all of their industry professionals from attending the rival ceremony and intimidated others regionally with the threat of blacklisting. 

The mainland’s boycott has put Chinese cinema in a bind. Without mainland films, the Golden Horse Awards risk becoming what Beijing Film Academy-based critic Shi Wenxue disparagingly calls a “self-entertaining regional show” without relevance. Yet without the Golden Horse Awards, Beijing — keen to develop and deploy its soft power — risks having no internationally recognized platform in Asia that testifies to the quality of its films, given that its own Golden Rooster awards have historically been scoffed at as a scripted affair privileging “socialist core values” over artistic merit.

USC professor Stanley Rosen sums it up: “The Golden Horse Awards are now greatly diminished since mainland films have dominated the awards in recent years,” but “the Golden Rooster Awards have had no relevance outside China.”

Last year, mainland films made up the majority of the Golden Horse best feature nominees and all of the best director ones, ultimately yielding wins for China’s “An Elephant Sitting Still” and mainland helmer Zhang Yimou. This year, one of the more nominated Golden Rooster films is “The Bugle From Gutian,” a historical epic with a C-grade feel made to commemorate a Communist war anniversary for the mainland’s Army Day.

Taiwanese director Fu Yue sparked the current controversy last year with her Golden Horse acceptance speech for best documentary, in which she said: “I really hope our country will one day be treated as a genuine independent entity. This is my greatest wish as a Taiwanese person.” 

Beijing views Taiwan as a renegade province rather than a self-governed country, and has severely chastised anyone implying otherwise. The topic is particularly sensitive with Taiwanese elections coming up in early January and at a time when ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong have soured Taiwanese outlooks on the possibilities of a closer relationship with the mainland. 

As a consequence, the Golden Horse Awards have become a political hot potato for artists and sponsors. Maserati pulled its support late last month, saying that the deal had been struck by its local Taiwan office and didn’t represent the brand’s “official stance.” Others, like Versace, have chosen to curry favor with Beijing by backing the Roosters, where they’ll be dressing many of the stars. 

The political tightrope is even trickier for filmmakers drawn to the Golden Horse Awards’ prestige but afraid to risk their access to the world’s second-largest film market. 

Iconic Hong Kong director Johnnie To was announced as head of the Golden Horse jury in June but resigned in September amid mainland pressure to boycott. And Oscar-winner Ang Lee, last year’s Golden Horse executive committee chairman, has been managing the impossible balancing act of leading the blacklisted event to success without angering either side.

“Ang Lee is in an uncomfortable position, but he’s too important for China to ignore” because he is one of the only helmers with a proven track record in both Western and Chinese-language films, says Rosen. Indeed, Lee’s “Gemini Man” was one of the first Hollywood blockbusters granted a theatrical release after China’s National Day holiday, earning $33 million in the territory.

Golden Horse nominees this year hail mostly from Taiwan and Southeast Asia, with Taiwanese flicks “A Sun” and “Detention,” Singapore’s “Wet Season,” Hong Kong indie “Suk Suk” and Malaysia’s English-language “The Garden of Evening Mists” competing for best narrative feature. 

“The entertainment business is still a business; you have to know which lines not to cross, and China has drawn a very bright line,” says Maria Orzel, head of the Producers Guild of America’s Asia Task Force. “Chinese people are very pragmatic — they’ll go where they feel safe to continue their business.”

Singaporean Camera d’Or winner Anthony Chen was one filmmaker who wasn’t scared away. Fresh off wins at the mainland’s Pingyao Intl. Film Festival, his second feature, “Wet Season,” is up for six Golden Horses. He said his decision to submit to the Taipei awards was a “straightforward” one backed by his financiers and executive producers, because his first film, “Ilo Ilo,” garnered multiple wins and nominations there in 2013. “As a filmmaker, all I can do is focus on my work,” he tells Variety, declining to comment further on politics. 

The Roosters, which will be held in the coastal city of Xiamen for the next decade, only allow entries that have passed Chinese censorship from the second half of 2017 to the first half of 2019. Some selections this year mirror those from the international
festival circuit, with Wang Xiaoshuai’s Berlin Silver Bear Award-winning critique of China’s one-child policy, “So Long, My Son,” notably nabbing five nominations, including best feature and director. Previous Golden Horse Award winners, like last summer’s breakout hit “Dying to Survive” and Chen Kaige’s “Legend of the Demon Cat,” also feature prominently.  

The work of two Taiwanese professionals has been highlighted: Rene Liu, whose romantic drama “Us and Them” was shortlisted for five prizes, and editor Liao Qingsong. 

Director Teng Congcong, whose first feature, “Send Me to the Clouds,” has four Rooster nods, says she is “very honored” to have been selected despite the festival’s lack of reputation abroad. Most Chinese filmmakers these days, she says, have their eyes squarely on what to them is the most relevant prize: the ballooning Chinese box office. “Currently, the Golden Horse and really the whole overseas market is really icing on the cake for Chinese filmmakers. If we can participate in it, of course we’re very happy, but if we don’t, the Chinese market alone is already large enough.”