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One of the great ironies of China’s box-office boom era is the way the country’s Oscar fortunes took a nosedive just as the nation became a powerhouse of film production and consumption.
China has submitted films for consideration in the best foreign-language category since 1979, and throughout the 1980s and ’90s the country regularly nominated titles that were in the conventional Oscar mold — sweeping period films or gripping social dramas, from the likes of Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige and Xie Jin. Indeed, Zhang scored China its first Oscar nomination in 1990 with the Gong Li-starring romantic tragedy Ju Dou, and he later repeated the feat with the Wuxia classic Hero (2002).
Today, more than ever, China covets cultural prestige on the world stage to match its economic might — and its filmmaking output has arguably never been better. But right around the time that the Middle Kingdom overtook Japan as the world’s second-biggest theatrical film market in 2013, its Oscar submissions became puzzlingly self-defeating.
“Everything in China must be made political,” notes Stan Rosen, a professor at USC who specializes in China’s entertainment industry. “The result is that you get choices that are made either to further some agenda, or because the film is relatively inoffensive and avoids presenting China in a negative light in any way.”
In 2014, China submitted the little-seen French-Chinese co-production The Nightingale by Frenchman Philippe Muyl. The response among movie fans on Chinese social media at the time was, basically, a collective “huh?” Industry observers, though, took the message to be that China wanted to promote its official co-production system, which was viewed as a method for the country to bootstrap its technical capacities.
The next year, China again attempted to put forward a French-Chinese co-production, Jean-Jacques Annaud’s better-known Wolf Totem. But this time the Academy rejected the pick, saying the film didn’t have enough Chinese creative participation to be eligible. China quickly replaced its choice with the pop comedy Go Away Mr. Tumor. The film’s director, Han Yan (then just 31 years old), reacted to the substitution honor with total shock, saying on social media that he hadn’t even thought to put his film forward for consideration and felt “extremely lucky.” Industry insiders in China simply saw the situation as a debacle.
In 2017, the results got stranger still, with China selecting Wu Jing’s military action flick Wolf Warrior 2, basically arguing for the Oscar-worthy artistic merit of a “Chinese Rambo,” or perhaps simply wanting to give the world a whiff of the potency of the country’s bubbling nationalism. (The film is the highest grossing release ever in China.) This year, things were little better, as local screen legend Jiang Wen’s latest feature Hidden Man was selected despite being something of a critical and commercial disappointment.
During this same five-year stretch, China has produced numerous films that international critics would regard as worthy contenders — especially given the foreign-language category’s reputation as the most high-minded section of the Oscars.
In 2013, Jia Zhangke’s Wuxia critique of official corruption, A Touch of Sin, won Cannes’ best screenplay prize; Diao Yinan’s neo-noir Black Coal Thin Ice took Berlin’s Golden Bear the next year; and last summer, Wen Muye’s feature debut Dying to Survive became a mega-blockbuster thanks to a comedic but moving critique of China’s medical system (it has earned admiring comparisons to Oscar winners Philadelphia and Dallas Buyers Club). Zhang Yimou also put out one of his most critically acclaimed films in years in 2014, the Cultural Revolution saga Coming Home.
China has arrived at these curious outcomes through an official selection process that is as opaque, mercurial and subject to speculation as the inner workings of the Communist Party’s Standing Committee. What’s clear is that Beijing’s Film Bureau, lead by Communist party bureaucrat Wang Xiaohui, has the ultimate say.
Industry sources who have submitted films to the bureau for consideration in the past tell The Hollywood Reporter that in years when China has an agenda to push — say, promoting co-productions or touting popular nationalism — the choice is made by top party brass with little outside consultation.
In non-agenda-driven years, the bureau consults a loose panel of film critics and academics, whose identities are never revealed (Hong Kong and Taiwan, by contrast, make their Oscar picks through formal committees of industry veterans whose names are publicly available).
China’s leading studios and veteran filmmakers are also known to privately lobby Film Bureau leadership through various backdoor channels. “Having strong relationships there is very important if you want to get picked,” adds a source.
Explains Rosen, “Everything has to be worked out through internal consensus, and the choice comes down to perceived political costs and benefits.”
“What you don’t get,” he adds, “are the films with the highest aesthetic qualities that China has to offer.”
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