Competing Golden Horse, Golden Rooster Awards Reveal Complex Price of Artistic Freedom in Chinese Cinema

Ang Lee reacts during an interview

While mainland China’s Golden Rooster Awards crowed on social media about the star power of its attendees, the more modest Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan had to make do this year with a red carpet full of relative unknowns and sponsors that had fled the coop. Inside the auditorium in Taipei, however, the Golden Horse prizewinners and others in attendance were able to say things that those at the Golden Roosters would never have dared.

The contrast between the competing awards events offered a case study of the complex price of artistic freedom in the world of Chinese film and politics. Indeed, the two events clashed on Saturday evening in the first place because of a pro-Taiwanese independence acceptance speech at the Golden Horses last year. That prompted Beijing to ban mainland industry players from attending this year’s ceremony in Taiwan and to turn its own biennial Golden Rooster awards into an annual event to be held directly across the Taiwan Strait, on the same evening, in Xiamen.

In Taipei, the procession of Golden Horse attendees outside the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall attracted only a thin crowd of passers-by who remained oddly silent for most of its duration, as there were few known faces among the many newcomer nominees. A few Japanese attendees such as Palme d’Or winner Hirokazu Kore-eda (“Shoplifters”) and actor Masatoshi Nagase added a sprinkle of international glamour.

This year also marked the first time that the award ceremony had no host, a role that in the past has been filled by big names like Jackie Chan or even Huang Bo, who in 2012 became the first mainlander to take on the mantle.

“This year the Oscars don’t have a host either, so luckily it looks like we’re just following suit,” joked a Taiwanese industry player close to the matter.

Meanwhile, Jackie Chan, director Zhang Yimou, and what Chinese reports called “hundreds” of other A-listers strutted their stuff in Xiamen. (The coastal city is just a half hour’s ferry ride away from Taiwan’s Kinmen, one of two small islands once viewed as a bulwark against China, from which the Golden Horse festival derives its Chinese name.)

But to those who value creative freedoms, the celebrity wattage at the Golden Roosters was merely a shiny gloss on an event that critics say prioritizes Communist Party-approved messaging over artistic merit. The Golden Rooster winners included films with overtly nationalistic, party-glorifying themes.

Golden Horse onlooker Luo Yuanyou, a 27-year-old Taiwanese civil engineer, couldn’t think of a single mainland film he’d seen in recent years, and said that most Taiwan locals only really regretted the loss of the big Hong Kong movie stars who had chosen to lie low rather than risk their China careers by attending. But even that was a worthwhile price to pay to uphold the Golden Horse festival as a place where people could freely speak their mind. (Taiwan, which mainland China regards as its rightful territory, has been democratically self-governed for more than 20 years.)

“Of course, it’s nice to see a star you recognize, but this isn’t really about the stars,” Luo said. “We think that what’s unique about Taiwanese cinema is that we can express things they cannot in the mainland.”

It’s not just locals who share such values. Two dozen or so super-cinephiles from the mainland were such diehard supporters of the Golden Horse festival that they found ways to defy Beijing’s travel ban on individuals visiting Taiwan. One, who asked to go by the surname Kim for fear of personal repercussions, paid in actual blood: Unable to obtain an individual tourist visa, he applied for a more expensive medical visa that required proof of an actual checkup that included a blood test. “It was really important to be here this year of all years to symbolically show my support,” he said.

Taiwan’s freedom of speech was clearly on display at the Golden Horse ceremony. Two winners made direct statements of support for the ongoing Hong Kong pro-democracy protests in their acceptance speeches, which would be a no-no in China.

Taiwanese director Wang Dengyu won best animated short for “Gold Fish,” which tells the story of a boy who must free people from authorities who are devouring their dreams so that they’re willing to be controlled.

“I originally thought this work was a parable. I didn’t expect it would become a reality, and that reality surpassed the imaginative possibility of animation. It’s really absurd,” he said, nervously reading from a note card as he added: “The current situation in Hong Kong makes one feel deep sorrow.”

Accepting the prize for best original film song in “Detention,” Taiwanese composer Lu Luming said he wished to gift his song to “everyone in Hong Kong who insists on their ideals. I hope you can live peacefully and freely.”

“Hope only comes from surviving, because only then will people in the future know how difficult this all was,” he said, echoing a line from the film.

Both Wang’s and Lu’s comments were met with deafening applause, but they decrease the odds of a reconciliation between the Golden Horse festival and mainland China authorities next year.

In her acceptance speech for best feature, “A Sun” producer Yeh Jufeng choked up in the final comment of the night over a subtle reference to the potential troubles ahead for the Golden Horse Awards. She reaffirmed the festival’s commitment to its core value of celebrating cinema, before saying: “No matter the past, the present or the future…no matter the dark night, no matter the shadows, the sun will always come out.”

The tensest moment of the ceremony actually came after the show was over, when a foreign news outlet asked Oscar-winning director Ang Lee, the festival’s executive committee chairman, about China.

Although Taiwan has ranked as the top or second-best country in Asia for press freedom for the past decade, in sharp contrast to China, Taiwanese journalists and festival affiliates banded together to try to block the foreign reporter’s question as to whether China’s boycott marked a loss for the Golden Horse Awards.

“I think your question is extremely out of line,” hissed the Golden Horse executive committee’s executive director, Wen Tien-Hsiang, who as master of ceremonies had opened the press conference by explicitly warning those present not to discuss politics.

A journalist from Taiwan’s Liberty Times tried to cover up what happened by shouting that he couldn’t understand the English-language question, and the jury head, Golden Horse Lifetime Achievement Award-winning director Wang Toon, followed suit, trying to brush it aside.

After an uncomfortable minute, Lee delivered a poised response that carefully avoided offending either side. He called for kinship and intimacy between artists irrespective of politics, and emphasized the Golden Horse Awards’ role as an unofficial, nongovernmental event that has generated much goodwill over many years.

“Of course it’s a loss. When it comes to overall numbers, of course there were fewer [works] than usual,” he said of the mainland boycott’s impact. “But our arms are always open — as long as you’re a Chinese-speaking film or director, we welcome you to attend. We can’t control the outside world, but as filmmakers, we are part of a big, loving family that we really cherish.”

The Liberty Times journalist said to Variety that, though fluent in English, he intervened to try to protect Lee and the festival. “There’s a Chinese saying that goes, ‘the more you say, the more wrong you can do.’ The best thing for us at the moment is to say nothing…[so as not to] poke the wound” of topics that would encourage Beijing to keep up its boycott, he said.

A continued rift would threaten the Golden Horses’ status as the highest honor in Chinese cinema by shrinking the pool of contenders. The fear that participating films would be cut off from the world’s second-largest film market in retaliation would likely also imperil investors’ willingness to finance new Taiwanese productions, leaving local directors weakened.

It was worth sacrificing a bit of press freedom for the sake of safeguarding cinematic ones, added a colleague of the the Taiwanese journalist. “It’s very clear that the awards this year have been affected by the boycott, and we don’t want that impact to grow. Asking the question does nothing to help,” she said. “If one day the Golden Horse Awards disappear, there won’t ever be another free, open Chinese-language film award to take its place.”