Note: Asia in Cinema will hold its annual Golden Horse Awards Live Blog on Saturday, November 27th starting at 7pm Taiwan time.

The 58th Golden Horse Awards will be available for viewing worldwide on Youtube (except in Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei)

See a full list of this year’s nominees here

When Clubhouse had its 5 minutes of fame in Hong Kong, a fierce debate broke out between film producer-turned-senior influencer Stephen Shiu and up-and-coming actor Neo Yau, who co-founded the Youtube channel Trial and Error. The former argued that Hong Kong cinema is dead and that it would never return to what it once was, while the latter believed that Hong Kong cinema can find new possibilities such as crowdfunding or turning to the internet (obviously, he meant his own YouTube channel).

While I agree with both sides, I also disagreed with both sides. Shiu obviously meant theatrical films, while Yau obviously thought that YouTube can somehow support the lives of those working in the existing Hong Kong film industry. It’s true that Hong Kong will never return to its golden era, but that doesn’t mean the film industry isn’t worth saving. It’s true that there are new ways of making Hong Kong films, but jokey 13-minute YouTube videos is not it.

When people asked what I thought, my only response was, “If Taiwan cinema is still alive and kicking, how can Hong Kong cinema die?”

Taiwan has a population of 23 million people. That makes it hardly the largest film market in Asia – in fact, it’s a medium market at best by population, only larger than micro-markets like Singapore and Hong Kong. While Hollywood films can still make solid revenues there, its local film industry have been on life support for many years. Despite the industry being larger than Hong Kong’s in terms of number of professionals, most local films end up making less money at the local box office than a Hong Kong film at the Hong Kong box office.

Aside from, according to the festival circuit, the only three filmmakers worth a damn in its entire history, most Taiwanese filmmakers have yet to become widely known to cinephiles beyond its borders. Yet, its Golden Horse Awards is known to be the most reputable film awards in the Chinese-speaking region because of its inclusivity, allowing all Chinese-language films to be submitted regardless of its political stance or subject matter.

However, when that changed three years ago, what the award stood for was threatened because the largest industry in the region chose to do the adult equivalent of taking its toys and going home, then forced most of the Hong Kong film industry to do the same with them. Since the Golden Horse Awards require films in the running to be submitted for eligibility, it could not recognize great films from Mainland China even if it wanted to.

For years, people complained that Mainland China films threw the competition off-balance because it kept winning the top awards over Taiwanese films. It’s impossible for a competition involving films to be a fair one because there will always be films with better production values, better actors, etc etc. So when Mainland Chinese films withdrew for the last two editions of the awards, Taiwanese films got to have their time in the spotlight. The last two Best Film winners – Chung Mong-hong’s A SUN (陽光普照) and Chen Yu-hsun’s MY MISSING VALENTINE (消失的情人節) – are both local films.

Both films benefited from the awards in some ways. Both films got small box office bumps after winning, and many people did eventually watch MY MISSING VALENTINE – a major box office bomb at the time of release – on Netflix…and ended up sparking a heated discussion online about agency and consent. At the same time, there are also people who complained that the winning films were not up to the standard of past Golden Horse winners, that perhaps they only won because Mainland Chinese films were absent. In Mainland China, their film industry have been sorely lacking a notable arthouse hit on the European festival circuit for the past two years. Meanwhile, its Golden Rooster Awards – meant to be a direct competitor to the Golden Horse by being held on the same day across the Strait – still suffers from a lack of transparency and the feeling that the awards are given based on political merit rather than artistic merits, something that could not be compensated by having bigger celebrities in the seats.

And that brings us to 2021. Our world continues to be upended by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Taiwan film industry suffered a setback in the middle of the year when an outbreak nearly crippled the nation, though it also had a major blockbuster with MAN IN LOVE (當男人戀愛時), the remake of the Korean film of the same name. Fortunately, the outbreak ended on time for the Golden Horse Film Festival and Awards to be held on time, and the nominees are once again occupied by mostly Taiwanese films and a few Hong Kong films that are made without China Money (more on this later).

To recap, Hong Kong’s DRIFTING (濁水漂流) – co-financed by the Hong Kong arm of Singaporean company MM2 – leads the race with 12 nominations. Meanwhile, local films THE SOUL (緝魂) – actually a co-production with Mainland China – Chung Mong-hong’s THE FALLS (瀑布), and Gidden Ko’s ‘TIL WE MEET AGAIN (月老) have 11 nominations each. All four films are nominated for Best Film, along with AMERICAN GIRL (美國女孩), the autobiographical debut film by Feng-i Fiona Roan that is nominated for a total of 7 awards.

Having only seen three of the five nominated films, I can’t comment on which film has the best chance of winning, but I can say that AMERICAN GIRL has built tremendous word-of-mouth after preview and festival screenings (it actually topped the audience polls for nine consecutive days), picking up both the FIPRESCI award and the festival’s audience award on the night before the award ceremony. In other words, don’t be surprised if AMERICAN GIRL becomes the dark horse winner of the night.

I’m running short on time, so I won’t comment on too many films until the Live Blog, but another category to watch out for is Best Documentary. The front-runner of that category at the moment is, obviously, Kiwi Chow’s 2019 Hong Kong protest documentary REVOLUTION OF OUR TIMES (時代革命). Aside from its political significance, it was also the film that dethroned AMERICAN GIRL to top the festival audience poll. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that I’ll ever be able to see this film – nor Rex Ren and Lam Sum’s MAY YOU STAY FOREVER YOUNG (少年), for that matter – in Hong Kong.

As for the Golden Horse Awards itself. It’s true that it has lost its luster with fewer critically acclaimed high-profile titles (read: Mainland Chinese) and fewer stars – as pointed out by a hit piece out of Mainland Chinese media today – but the Mainland China boycott perhaps has only played up the award’s importance in the region. Yes, the jury system and the submission system are flawed in ways, but at least you can be sure that the Golden Horse Awards is as close as it will get to being a film award based on artistic merit in this part of the world. And these days, that is becoming increasingly rare.

At the end of the day, the 2021 Golden Horse Awards is, once again, going to be Taiwan cinema’s celebration party, and it’s a party worth having considering that it’s still alive and kicking after everything it’s been through. I just wished that more of you out there would realize how important that is.