The entertainment industry has occasionally used its award ceremonies as a platform to express its political preferences. In 1993, when the actor Richard Gere presented at the Oscars, he delivered a monologue calling attention to China’s human rights violations. The award show’s producer Gil Cates was furious with the political grandstanding. “Does anyone care about Richard Gere’s comments about China? It’s arrogant,” he told the Los Angeles Times afterwards.
Back in 1975, too, documentary producer Bert Schneider came out against the Vietnam War after wining an Oscar for his antiwar film, Hearts and Minds. Later, co-presenter Frank Sinatra had to read a note from Bob Hope on behalf of the Academy apologising for Schneider’s comments. “We are not responsible for any political references made on the programme, and we are sorry they had to take place this evening,” it said.
Last Saturday, Taiwan’s Golden Horse Film Awards, sometimes dubbed as the Chinese Oscars, took a highly controversial turn when a winner grabbed her chance to make a political statement.
Filmmaker Fu Yue, who won the best documentary award for Our Youth in Taiwan, a film about the island’s 2014 student-led Sunflower Movement (staged to protest against a trade pact with Beijing), didn’t hold back: “I hope one day our country will be recognised and treated as a truly independent entity. This is my biggest wish as a Taiwanese.”
Cue panicked expressions and large exhalations of breath. Coverage of the ceremony stopped abruptly on the mainland and angry netizens flooded Sina Weibo, denouncing Fu as a “separatist” and a “traitor”. (Beijing officially categorises the island as a “renegade province”.)
“To the documentary maker: that film in your mind is broken. I can also tell you with certainty that [Taiwan being recognised as a country] will never happen. After all, Taiwan was a province and it will always be a province,” one furious mainland netizen scoffed.
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen then chimed in on Facebook, retorting that Taiwan “never accepted the phrase ‘China, Taiwan’, and never would, because Taiwan is Taiwan,” she wrote in a post.
“I am proud of yesterday’s Golden Horse Awards that highlights the differences between Taiwan and mainland China, because of our freedom and diversity, and this is why this is a place where artistic creations can be free.”
Fu’s dramatic moment came just a few days ahead of Taiwan’s mid-term elections, which will provide a clearer sense of public support for the the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which Tsai leads. Analysts are predicting that the more pro-unification KMT will gain seats as Tsai’s approval rating – at less than 30% – is at its lowest point since she took office in 2016. Even in places where the DPP is traditionally preferred – like the cities of Kaohsiung and Taichung – its lead over KMT has been narrowing.
Founded in 1962, the Golden Horse Awards are important for Chinese-language filmmakers in getting recognition for their work. Even when Cross-Straits relations have been at their iciest, the awards ceremony has generally managed to avoid overt political activism on both sides of the divide. When the show was over this year, director Lee Ang (an Oscar winner for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), who was the chair of the awards for the first time, complained: “I hope we can do pure art, without any politics getting involved. I am asking for respect from all of you.”
Lee’s goal for the Golden Horse was to bring together the best in Chinese-language films. To that end, he made it his first order of business to mend fences with actress Gong Li. Back in 2014, Gong was nominated for best actress for her role in the film Coming Home. She travelled to Taipei for the show only to end up losing to another actress. She later slammed the awards as “unfair,” “unprofessional” and vowed to never return (see WiC263).
To patch things up, Lee courted Gong carefully, telling the media that she was the “perfect” choice as a judge, not only for her significant reputation in Chinese cinema but also because of her rich experience on the international stage.
But after Fu’s outburst, Gong, who was scheduled to present the award for best feature film with Lee, changed her mind at the last minute, leaving him to do so alone. Other mainland stars that attended the event, like actor Deng Chao and his wife actress Sun Li, reportedly ditched the after-party event in protest too.
Fu wasn’t the only person to turn to politics that night. Tu Men, last year’s winner of Best Leading Actor, also pitched himself into the fray when he announced this year’s winner: “I feel very honoured to be invited once again to the Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan, China… I’ve met many old friends, and made many new ones too. Truly, we are one big family on both sides of the straits.”
So who was the biggest casualty of the controversy? Many thought it was Lee himself. “No one is worse off than Lee Ang. He spent his whole life making films about love, humanity and cultural acceptance. And for this Golden Horse Film Awards, he spent so much time trying to get everyone from across the straits to attend. He even convinced Gong Li to come,” one netizen wrote. “In the end, a nobody wiped out all his hard work. People came to celebrate art, but all the focus went to politics.”
After Fu’s comments went viral online, the hashtag ‘China: not one dot less’ began blowing up on social media. Eager to portray their patriotic vigour, mainland celebrities including actor Huang Xiaoming and starlet Guan Xiaotong, whose film Shadow was the most nominated film at the Golden Horse this year, began sharing an old post by the People’s Daily featuring a map of China that incorporates Taiwan and a huge expanse of territory within the Nine-Dash line (an outline that forms part of Beijing’s claim to seas across the region). The image was reposted over five million times.
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