Taiwanese Filmmakers Can’t Escape Beijing’s Grip

The market's in the mainland, but the freedom to create is in Taiwan.

Chinese actress Gong Li attends the opening night gala during the 69th annual Cannes Film Festival at the Palais des Festivals on May 11, 2016 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Pool/Getty Images)
Chinese actress Gong Li attends the opening night gala during the 69th annual Cannes Film Festival at the Palais des Festivals on May 11, 2016 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Pool/Getty Images)

For Taiwanese filmmakers, the market of 1.3 billion people across the strait is both tempting and constrictive. Tempting, because it means an audience they’ll never reach at home. Constrictive, because the mainland’s censorship is overwhelming—and there’s no more dangerous issue in China than Taiwanese independence. That has made actors and directors cautious of endangering their prospects on the mainland.

But in Taipei this Saturday at the 55th annual Golden Horse Awards, which honor films from around the Chinese-speaking world, independence finally took a front seat. That sparked a round of mandatory patriotism from mainland actors—and highlighted the deep divisions between the diaspora and the painfully censorious mainland, in a field that was once one of the few places where artistic unity and common heritage were able to overcome political divisions.

When the Golden Horse first opened up, the number of mainland nominees paled in comparison to the number from Taiwan and Hong Kong. But as the mainland film industry continues to grow, Chinese film has taken a prominent if not dominant spot at the awards—the symbolism of which is not lost on its attendees. Like it or not, mainland cinema has become too big to ignore. The Chinese domestic film market is worth billions, and Taiwan’s is a fraction of that. Taiwanese directors and thespians need to act nice for capital and access—but not all of them are happy to play along.

At the Golden Horse awards, the best documentary prize went to Our Youth in Taiwan, an examination of the 2014 pro-Taiwan independence Sunflower Movement. In her acceptance speech, director Fu Yue expressed her hope that Taiwan would one day be recognized as “a truly independent entity,” adding that such a recognition was her “greatest wish as a Taiwanese.”

As soon as Taiwanese independence was mentioned, broadcasts of the program in the mainland were immediately cut off. This was to be expected: The People’s Republic of China regards Taiwan as a “breakaway province,” regularly threatens to retake it by force, and bans any discussion of independence from domestic media. There’s no more potentially heated issue in China, where Taiwan’s “rightful” status as a part of the motherland is drilled in from elementary school onward.

What’s more surprising is that the broadcast was allowed in the first place. As recently as 2014, China banned the Golden Horse broadcast on account of the Taiwanese film Kano, which had been nominated for several of the categories. Kano, a baseball drama set in the Japanese colonial period, was seen as portraying the Japanese occupation of Taiwan in too positive a light. The Hong Kong Film Awards, meanwhile, came under fire in 2016 for lauding the dystopian action film Trivisa, which many saw as an allegory for an encroaching mainland takeover in the city-state; plans to broadcast the ceremony were quashed at the last minute.

The 2018 Golden Horse contenders were even more inflammatory. In addition to Our Youth, another nominee was Umbrella Diaries, a documentary about the Hong Kong protest movement. The awkwardness mounted following Our Youth director Fu’s statement when Taiwanese auteur Ang Lee took to the stage alone to present the award for best picture, while his planned co-presenter Gong Li, the doyenne of mainland cinema and chair of this year’s Golden Horse jury, remained coolly seated in the audience, presumably in protest of the evening’s pro-Taiwan rhetoric.

On the mainland Chinese internet, Gong’s act of defiance soon shot to the top of the hot trending topics, enjoying a mostly positive reception from netizens who hailed Gong as “Empress” and credited her for standing up to the perceived bullyingof the pro-Taiwan independence “faction.” Gong herself, regardless of whether her patriotism was stirred or not, must have been aware of how quickly the government and the mob could turn against her if she seemed to give the idea any kind of endorsement.

Gong’s act was followed by a round of social media posts from Chinese celebrities, often using identical language, endorsing national unity and damning Taiwan. That prompted Taiwanese—and young Hong Kongers, who often see the Taiwanese as comrades against Beijing—to pledge boycotts of the stars in turn.

The Golden Horse Awards themselves have never been apolitical. They were conceived in 1962 as part of the Kuomintang military dictatorship bid to consolidate support for the regime across the Chinese diaspora. Even the Chinese name for the award, Jinma, is an amalgam of the names of two islands, Jinmen and Mazu (rendered as Kinmen and Matsu in the Wade-Giles romanization system used by Taiwan), long disputed between the mainland and Taiwan. China responded in kind, launching the Hundred Flowers film awards in 1963, but these were soon suspended with the arrival of the Cultural Revolution and didn’t pick back up again until after the death of Mao Zedong. In the intervening time, and with the dominance of Taiwanese and Hong Kong cinema, the Golden Horse Awards became the premier show in the Sinosphere.

From its inception until 1989, the Golden Horse was run entirely by the Kuomintang’s propaganda arm, the Government Information Office, which was tasked with carrying out the regime’s “Mandarin film” policy—that is, subsidizing films in Mandarin (the language shared by Kuomintang exiles who had just fled the mainland, as opposed to Taiwanese) that also evinced pro-government sentiments and adherence to national policy. For almost two decades, only Mandarin films qualified for the Golden Horse—the policy was only dropped quietly in 1983 to accommodate the new wave of Cantonese-language films from Hong Kong.

While the Golden Horse broadened to include its fellow disputed territory, it continued to exclude submissions from the mainland. Feigning indifference, China started a second rival awards show, the Golden Rooster, in 1981—to which, of course, Taiwan was not invited. The Golden Rooster and Hundred Flowers were soon merged—continued as a parallel ceremony until 1996, when the Golden Horse finally opened up to submissions from the mainland.

In that year, Jiang Wen’s In the Heat of the Sun took the prize for best film, an especially significant victory for China, at the time a far less developed economy and an undisputed lesser cultural power. But it was also a sign of a willingness among the Taiwanese to take mainland culture seriously—and to find a common ground that now seems lacking.

After this year’s show, a harried-looking Lee told media that it was his hope politics could stay out of the ceremony and that “respect for the film industry” could take precedence. He was expressing a sentiment that’s common among the older generation of actors and directors, for whom film was one of the ways that Chinese were able to rediscover their common heritage in the 1980s as the mainland began to open up. That’s why many mainlanders found the intrusion of independence so painful, too—for them, a venue that had once been part of humanizing one another was now tainted by Taiwanese radicalism.

For Taiwanese, though, silence is increasingly equated with complicity with Beijing’s global efforts to squash the narrow political space available to the island. This year’s ceremony—a rare annual occasion for the Chinese-speaking world to come together—exposed the increasingly frail fiction that all of the Chinese-speaking regions have equal seats at the table when it comes to the culture industry. Going forward, the Golden Horse will have to choose one of two paths: It can return to its local, nationalistic origins, accepting only Taiwanese submissions, or it can follow the rest of the world in bending the knee to the mainland.


Lauren Teixeira is a freelance writer based in Chengdu, China.

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