Choosing a movie to compete in the Foreign Language category for the Oscars is a contentious process, even at the best of times and even in the most transparent of countries.
In the world’s second biggest, and often most arcane, film market, the process this year has spawned an almighty row, with the famed French director Jean-Jacques Annaud “stupefied” after his Wolf Totem was deemed “not Chinese enough” and replaced by Han Yan’s tale of a dying cartoonist, Go Away Mr Tumour.
Meanwhile one of the most powerful potential entrants, Mountains May Depart by the often-controversial Jia Zhangke, wasn’t even in contention.
When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences revealed its list of 81 submissions for the Foreign Language Oscar race earlier this month, the exclusion of Wolf Totem came as a shock, as state media had already reported it as if a done deal.
Under the eligibility rules, producers must certify “that creative control of the motion picture was largely in the hands of citizens or residents of that country” so the Academy apparently asked China to submit another movie.
Wolf Totem is a Sino-French co-production in Mandarin and Mongolian, with backing from the influential China Film Group. The Academy said the film failed to pass review because its director as well as the lead screenwriter, Alain Godard, were both French, not Chinese.
However, the film industry loves conspiracy theories and many saw other factors at work. After all, Wolf Totem is based on a popular Chinese novel of the same name, describing a young cadre’s experiences during the Cultural Revolution and his attempts to raise a wolf in captivity while living among nomads in Inner Mongolia.
Indeed, the lack of Chinese-ness wasn’t a problem last year, when another China-France co-production, Philippe Muyl’s The Nightingale, was chosen.
For many in the business, it was not a tremendous surprise that the country’s main media authority, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT), ditched Wolf Totem. Indeed there had been general bafflement as to why China would choose a French-directed movie two years in a row.
The move to go for a wholly home-grown flick comes at a time when the Chinese government is trying to expand its influence and add muscle to its cultural impact.
The last time China made the shortlist for the Foreign Language Oscar was in 2002 with Zhang Yimou’s Hero. The country’s film authorities are keen that the rise in box office takings in recent years be matched by some kind of recognition for the nation’s cinematic creativity. But international kudos has proven elusive, as censorship and the demands of the market mean that most productions in China are either shamelessly commercial – full of product placement – or feature jokes or scenarios that only work in China, such as local historical dramas. These often fail to resonate with overseas award-givers.
Most of the international praise has gone to arthouse directors such as Wang Xiaoshuai or Lou Ye, whose films are often banned or restricted in China because they are politically or socially sensitive.
So what of this year’s choice? Produced by Wanda Pictures, Go Away Mr Tumour tells the real-life story of popular Chinese cartoonist Xiang Yao, whose nom de plume was Bearton or Xiongdun and who died in November 2012 of a brain tumour, aged just 30. The movie stars Bai Baihe and Daniel Wu.
Asked what advantages he thought Go Away Mr Tumour had, its director Han Yan was a model of diplomacy, suggesting that there was more going on behind the scenes than just a decision by the Academy.
Both movies were box office successes. Wolf Totem grossed more than $120 million in China, while Go Away Mr Tumour took $111 million.
Speaking to ThePaper.cn Han said: “I have watched Wolf Totem and I like it a lot. I will go to watch Mountains May Depart because Jia Zhangke is a director whom I like a lot. Go Away Mr Tumour was chosen as China’s entry for the Oscar, and I think the Film Bureau had its own considerations. I think maybe it is a kind of praise for Xiongdun’s spirit. Maybe Xiongdun is more important. We can’t look at the whole issue from a purely film perspective.”
Asked if he thought there was a conflict between commercial movies and others focused on the bigger human issues, Han said he felt his movie was very humane.
When asked if he thought the decision came rather quickly, Han basically made his excuses and left the press conference.
The online commentariat was largely critical. The popular movie critic Lanse Dinghualun wrote on weibo that Go Away Mr Tumour had made many people cry “but it is too lowbrow for the Oscars”.
Another critic, Yueliang Zainiyanjing, said while Go Away Mr Tumour was very moving, “I still feel something is missing if it is going for the Oscar. The Chinese box office is growing like crazy and it is breaking records every day. It seems very promising but films of good quality and content are few, especially when going for the Oscar.”
Another film blogger asked: “Why was Mountains May Depart not chosen? SAPPRFT has given its reasons for not choosing Wolf Totem, but please give a reasonable reason to Mountains May Depart.”
Meanwhile Annaud said he was “stupefied” by the Academy’s decision, accusing the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences of possessing a “banana republic level of arbitrariness”.
Annaud then accused Hollywood of a “nearly protectionist” double standard where “American cinema can feed off foreign talent without reservation. But foreign cinema must remain tribal”.
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