Note: Asia in Cinema will hold its first Golden Horse Awards Live Blog starting at 7 pm (Hong Kong Time) on Saturday, November 25th.
The Golden Horse Awards represent all Chinese-speaking films, and in this messy, politically complex area that is the Greater China region, the Golden Horse Awards holds different meanings to filmmakers from different places (even I have to be careful about using region/country!).
For Taiwan filmmakers, winning the Golden Horse is a matter of hometown pride. It’s the most legitimate and respected film award in the Chinese-speaking world, and Taiwan has home field advantage. It’s not only like winning the Oscars of Taiwan – it’s about rising above in one of the most competitive film awards in the world – Yes, even more so than the Oscars. Taiwan films have won five of the last ten Golden Horse Awards for best film (only if you count Lust, Caution (色，戒) as a Taiwan film), and Taiwan would like a better percentage than that.
It’s a similar sentiment for Hong Kong filmmakers. While Hong Kong has its own respected film awards, beating out competitors from Taiwan and mainland China is a major ego stroke and an especially important one as the Hong Kong film industry continues to live on life support. To this day, the Golden Horse is the only award body that has given Aaron Kwok two best actor awards in consecutive years, so it’s no surprise that Hong Kong cinema loves the Golden Horse.
For mainland Chinese filmmakers, the Golden Horse Award is a matter of legitimacy. Even as Chinese cinema continues its rapid rise as a major commercial industry, its film awards often make inexplicable decisions largely driven by politics or populism. The Golden Horse Awards are organized and judged by some of the most respected film industry figures in the region, and it’s an award that any serious Chinese filmmaker would greatly respect.
With Chinese cinema rising in prominence in the past decade, Golden Horse has become an intense battle between Chinese and Taiwanese cinema industries. Hong Kong cinema had its bright spots here and there (namely last year with Trivisa (樹大招風) and Mad World (一念無明)), but it’s been largely pushed to the sidelines in the past decade.
That brings us to the 2017 Golden Horse Awards. With Hong Kong cinema completely out of the running in the best film category – the first time since 2009 – the Taiwan vs China battle is on.
On the mainland China side, we have two films examining social problems in mainland Chinese society through crime stories. Free and Easy (輕鬆+愉快) – officially a Hong Kong production but entirely made in mainland China – is a wry satire about con men in an abandoned northern factory town, victims who aren’t exactly as innocent as they seem, and policemen who have better things to worry about than solving crimes. Vivian Qu’s Angels Wear White (嘉年華) is an incendiary morality play about an underage hotel clerk who becomes the sole witness to a shocking rape case.
Representing the Taiwan side are two damning looks at the corruption of the rich and powerful and economic disparity in Taiwanese society. The Bold, The Corrupt and the Beautiful (血觀音) is the portrait of an antique dealer family who are “white gloves” that carry out money laundering for rich politicians. The Great Buddha+ (大佛普拉斯) is a dark comedy that finds living in poverty in Taiwan such a depressing state of being that it has no choice but laugh about it. The latter has the highest number of nominations this year at ten.
Trapped in the middle is family drama Love Education (相愛相親). Representing a new era of co-productions between regions, the film is actor-director Sylvia Chang’s first film to be entirely set and filmed in mainland China. Taiwan’s Chang directed, co-wrote and starred in the film, but almost the rest of the cast is made up of mainland Chinese actors. Considering that this is Chang’s final year as the chairperson of the festival, Love Education may be the front-runner this year after all.
Nevertheless, it’s an extraordinary year for Taiwan cinema, which has been on a roller coaster ride since 2000. From nearly being totally annihilated as annual productions hit single digit to the so-called resurgence kicked off by Cape No. 7 (海角7號) to this year’s lackluster box office performance, the Taiwan cinema industry has been understandably on edge about becoming a fringe film industry that will be swallowed up by mainland China, just like Hong Kong. Every local box office hit brings new hope, only to be dashed by a string of high-profile local flops.
Yet, Taiwan is leading the way in what appears to be the most intense best new director competition in years. The Great Buddha+’s Huang Hsin-yao is facing off against Huang Xi – whose Missing Johnny (強尼．凱克) is backed by Taiwan cinema godfather Hou Hsiao-hsien – Malaysia’s Tan Feng Kiat – who just won the top prize for the second time at the Golden Horse project platform – for Shuttle Life (分貝人生), Zhou Ziyang for China’s Old Beast (老獸), and Chan Ching-lin for acclaimed TV movie The Island That All Flow By (川流之島). As recent documentaries about the industry constantly remind us, the Taiwan film industry has fallen on seriously hard times, but it’s heartening to see so many young talents overcoming challenges to tell Taiwan stories.
While Godspeed (一路順風) did receive the highest number of nominations last year, it went home empty-handed. It was an outcome that surprised no one – after all, it was a flawed film that could hardly represent the best that Taiwan cinema can do. Having seen most of the nominees this year, it’s safe to say that all three Taiwan contenders this year stand a much stronger chance of winning best film.
Will 2017 be Taiwan cinema’s comeback at the Golden Horse? Will a Taiwan film that is not made by Hou Hsiao-hsien finally bring the best film prize back home for the first time since 2011? Or will Chinese cinema triumph for the second year in a row? Tune in to find out.