Controversy Brewing Around China's Oscar Submission

Annaud Zhangke Split H 2015

A producer of Jean-Jacques Annaud’s "Wolf Totem," widely tipped to be China's Oscar contender, took to social media to blast director Jia Zhangke's eleventh-hour campaign for the submission.

French director Jean-Jacques Annaud’s period epic Wolf Totem was widely believed to be China's submission for this year’s foreign-language Oscar, but it appears the race isn't over just yet.

While at the Toronto International Film Festival this week, Chinese auteur Jia Zhangke revealed that producers are lobbying for his latest feature, Mountains May Depart, to be submitted instead.

“I’ve heard rumors that Wolf Totem has been confirmed as the representative. But I feel that couldn’t be right. It’s not over until October 1,” Jia told the South China Morning Post in Toronto.

China's Film Bureau, part of the all-powerful regulator, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT), decides which film to submit to the Oscars. The official announcement is usually made shortly before the Academy's October 1 deadline.

In August, sources from the Wolf Totem camp told THR they had been informed that the nomination of their film was a lock. Annaud said at the time, "I'm very pleased for my crew and cast. They worked with so much dedication and I feel it's very important for each of them. I had such a warm welcome over there. I feel grateful to everyone involved with this project."

In order to qualify for consideration under the Academy's rules, foreign films are required to have had at least a one-week commercial run in their home country. Jia's critically acclaimed past work – such as A Touch of Sin, winner of the Cannes Film Festival's best screenplay award in 2013 – has been consistently dogged by censorship issues in China, and seldom seen release. A Touch of Sin was initially approved by China's censors last year, but then abruptly pulled from screening schedules. Jia hasn't had a film released in the country since his 2010 documentary I Wish I Knew.

But this year Jia's backers rallied to get Mountains May Depart – his latest slow-burn art house drama, which premiered in Cannes in May – a limited run in Shanghai cinemas from Sept. 8-14, making it a late qualifier for the Oscars.

In response to the news, one of Wolf Totem's producers, Wang Weimin, took to Weibo on Wednesday to make his case for the film – he also took some unsubtle digs at Jia in the process, kicking off a heated debate on Chinese social media.

"Recently, lots of friends have been calling me, saying that the 'foreign award-winning specialist' is claiming that his film will represent China for the foreign language Oscar," Wang writes in the lengthy post, referencing the way Chinese critics have occasionally slighted Jia for his foreign festival success but lack of exposure back home.

"His movies are so obscure and 'deep' that they don't keep my attention," Wang goes on the post. "I've never finished watching one."

A Chinese-French coproduction that employs both the Mandarin and Mongolian languages, Wolf Totem opened in China on Feb. 19, during the Chinese New Year. It went on to become one of the top 15 highest-grossing films of the year in China, pulling in $110.5 million.

In his post, Wang cites Wolf Totem's box office success in China, and current limited release in the U.S., adding, "Therefore, this is the movie with mainstream Chinese values that has really gone out [to the world]… If this film can’t represent China in the Oscars race, what kind of movie should?"

Some Weibo users were quick to fire back at Wang in Jia's defense.

"This just shows that you're petty, and don't understand international awards," wrote one user.

Others questioned whether Wolf Totem was an appropriate submission, given that Annaud isn't Chinese.

"I don't think a French director's film can represent China – support Jia Zhangke!" said a user named Sharik Da Ling.

If Wolf Totem does get the nod, it will mark the second year in a row that China has nominated a film directed by a Frenchman. In 2014, China submitted Philippe Muyl's China-France co-production The Nightingale. 

Based on the semi-autobiographical, best-selling novel by Lu JiaminWolf Totem tells of a Chinese student who travels to Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution to live among the nomadic herdsman and there becomes fascinated with the wolves that roam the steppes.

Mountains May Depart follows the emotional journeys of a set of characters across three time periods: China in the economic booms times of the 1990s, the country in the present-day and Australia in the year 2025.

Both films have been critical favorites.