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Heading into the Venice International Film Festival’s 78th edition, organizers created a rift with Taiwan by listing two films hailing from the island territory as being from “Chinese Taipei,” rather than simply “Taiwan” as they always have been in the past.
Taipei’s foreign ministry insists that the two films — acclaimed filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang’s documentary The Night, which is premiering out of competition; and Chung Mong-hong’s family drama The Falls, showing in the Oritzzonti section — both were submitted to Venice under the name Taiwan. So, as soon as Venice’s lineup was unveiled in early August, Taiwan’s representative office in Italy requested an immediate correction. “We will continue to communicate with organizers and demand the correction through multiple channels to make sure that our films will not face unreasonable suppression and our sovereignty will not be dwarfed,” Kendra Chen, the deputy head of Taiwan’s European affairs department said in an online video briefing at the time.
Venice has made no public statement explaining the politically charged rewording and the name remains unchanged in the official program. But a brief parenthetical — “(*as per Institutional practices)” — has been added as a vague explanatory note in every instance that the name Taipei is used instead of Taiwan in the festival’s website and official program.
At some international sporting events, such as the recently concluded Tokyo Summer Games, Taiwan has competed under the name “Chinese Taipei’’ since 1981, when Taiwan signed an agreement with the International Olympic Committee to temporarily settle the issue of the two different governments asserting legitimate leadership of China — the Communists in Beijing and the Kuomintang, or Nationalists, in Taipei. At the time, the Republic of China’s leaders — who retreated to Taiwan after losing the battle for the mainland in 1949 — actually preferred Chinese Taipei to the name Taiwan, because they wanted to express their continued claim to China in the wording.
The politics have shifted dramatically over the ensuing four decades, however, with Beijing now asserting that Taiwan is its rightful territory, and leveraging its growing geopolitical clout to contest anything — including the name Taiwan — that suggests the island’s formal independence. A majority of Taiwanese citizens, meanwhile, including the current president Tsai Ing-wen, are adamant that Taiwan be regarded as an independent, democratic nation, with a liberal society distinct from Beijing’s system of authoritarian rule.
Unlike the IOC, Venice is bound by no prior agreement and appears to have made its name change voluntarily (the festival declined to comment).
But in recent years, Chinese authorities have threatened various international businesses and organizations, including major Western airlines and fashion brands, with boycotts and loss of access to the vast mainland Chinese consumer market if they continue to list Taiwan as an independent country or territory, instead of a region of China, on international booking sites and online shopping pages. Professional wrestler turned actor John Cena was lambasted by Chinese nationalists just earlier this year when he referred to Taiwan as a country while promoting Fast & Furious 9 on Taiwanese TV. He later issued a groveling apology via video.
Figures from the Taiwanese film industry say Venice reached out to them in advance of the name change. “In Venice this year, the organizers received a lot of pressure and requests from the Chinese participants, and they also reached out to us in advance to express how they feel sorry and have regrets about this,” says Ting Hsiao-Ching, chairwoman of the Taiwan Creative Content Agency (TAICCA), a well-funded entertainment industry support organization backed by Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture. “For all the creators and the people in Taiwan we feel very uncomfortable with it but we acknowledge that this is the political reality at the moment,” she said, adding: “The change of the name reflects the geopolitical challenge we have in Taiwan and in Asia. We will continue to tell everyone who we are, and we are grateful to the people around the world who also speak out for us regarding this unfair treatment from China.”
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter‘s Sept. 3 daily issue at the Venice International Film Festival.
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