It came as little surprise that Johnnie To’s heavily-tipped thriller Life Without Principle should triumph at the 49th Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan last weekend, winning best director, best actor and best original screenplay.
More surprising was the winner of the best picture award. It went to Beijing Blues, a gritty slice of life from the Chinese capital, that was directed by Gao Qunshu.
“This is really unexpected… I am only an amateur director who shot a few films. I didn’t expect that my name would ever be associated with the Golden Horse,” said Gao at the ceremony in the Yilan Performance Arts Centre in northeastern Taiwan.
Beijing Blues focuses on a battle of wills between a policeman and a series of Beijing con artists. It’s also an unusual choice. Unlike so many films popular with Chinese audiences, it is not a historical epic set in the Warring States period, a drama lamenting China’s experience during the Second World War, or a kung-fu flick.
Instead, this is a keenly observed social drama which focuses on a decent policeman working his way through a city populated by petty thieves and swindlers.
The film is full of sharp social commentary without ladling it on too thick. And despite tough censorship rules on how police officers can be portrayed in movies, Beijing Blues emerges seemingly uncompromised, which is a real achievement. Likewise the movie deals with issues that Beijingers really care about.
Also unusual: all of the roles are played by amateurs, many of them real-life police officers. There is also a smattering of public figures: the lead role of Zhang Huiling is played by Zhang Lixian, a well-known publisher, while his sidekick is played by Ren Yao’an, a racing driver and participant in China’s Got Talent. TV presenter Bai Yanseng pops up as a criminal, while the lead character’s wife is played by the writer Chen Lu. Also appearing in the plot are characters played by the drummer from The Panthers, the columnist Fang Lei and the writer Fei Fei.
The Golden Horse awards are the leading Chinese-language awards, and inevitably described as the Chinese Oscars (although the winners are decided by a jury so it is more like a Chinese version of the Cannes Film Festival).
This year there were more than 30 films from Taiwan, China, and Hong Kong competing, with a jury composed of Taiwanese, mainland Chinese and Hong Kong judges.
Films from mainland China were first permitted to take part during the 1990s, but have rarely made as big a stir as this year.
Not that everyone in Taiwan is happy with this development. Of the 23 awards, only four went to Taiwanese films or actors, which local media decried as the island’s worst performance for 20 years. In fact, the showing was so bad that the opposition Democratic Progressive Party even called for the event to be scrapped.
“The original purpose of the Golden Horse Awards was to encourage development of the local film industry, but now it is losing its uniqueness,” DPP lawmaker Kuan Bi-ling told the legislature. She said it should be wound up in favour of a new system that would spur homegrown Taiwanese filmmakers.
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