After four days of back-slapping, plaudits for the hosts and encouraging noises about the imminent recovery of the theatrical cinema business, the CineAsia convention’s final awards lunch was reduced to tears by the very segment of the industry that had been conspicuously absent all week – mainland Chinese exhibitors.

Despite the near-complete Chinese absence, Jane Shao and Jimmy Wu, co-founders of upmarket exhibition chain Lumiere Pavilions were due to be named as CineAsia exhibitors of the year at a Thursday awards lunch. Surprisingly, both made the trip.

Their acceptance speeches were deeply emotional moments that served as reality checks for studios, equipment suppliers and currently-estranged partners of the Chinese industry.

“I remember vividly Jan. 23, 2020, when I got a phone call from my Wuhan manager who had just been told by local authorities to close down,” said Shao. Nearly three years later, China is only this week announcing significant reductions to quarantines, lockdowns and other COVID restrictions which have made lives a misery and hampered the economy.

“When I took off yesterday in Beijing the weather was -7 degrees. But the temperature of the Chinese industry is colder even than that outdoors,” said Shao.

The Chinese pair appeared visibly shocked by the literal and figurative temperature gradient as they addressed a banquet hall full of radiant Asian and U.S. executives. Wu quickly cracked under the emotional pressure.

“All my sponsors have now become my creditors,” he said signalling the financial repercussions of a previously high growth market that has gone into reverse, after regaining his composure. “Let’s hope that ‘Avatar 2’ is a new turning point for the Chinese exhibition industry.”

“That was so necessary,” one executive whispered to Variety shortly afterwards. “It is so easy to see our dealings with China through a political lens. But these are real people, real lives and real businesses that are in pain.”

Throughout the convention, which had endured a three-edition, four-year hiatus and had relocated to the glittering IconSiam venue in Bangkok, Thailand, corridor talk frequently focused on the complete absence of Chinese cinema operators. In previous editions, representatives from Asia’s biggest theatrical market had been numerous, and the gossips asked what will happen at CineAsia 2023, assuming that by then China will have moved on from its onerous COVID regime.

How quickly the economy and the cinema sector recovers remain moot. Shao was somber. “This is only the beginning of the end,” she said.

Economic problems in China abound. They include high youth unemployment, a deeply depressed property market and global supply chains that have been altered to downplay China’s role as the manufacturing center of the planet.

The Chinese film industry is currently in the deep freeze. Box office is down 36% on 2021 levels. Distributors are wary of releasing significant titles. Audiences are being distracted by outside events – nationwide box office in a country of 1.4 billion people on the day of Jiang Zemin’s funeral this week was below $250,000 – and by alternative forms of entertainment. China’s film censorship regime has become so strict and unwieldy that release approvals can be delayed for months.

Questions that the Dec. 16 release of “Avatar: The Way of Water” may only begin to answer include: whether three years of social distancing and other health warnings remain a barrier to in-person audience participation. And if China now has too many cinemas?