Hong Kong Film Industry Bows to Beijing Boycott of Taiwan's Golden Horse Awards

Courtesy of Universe Entertainment
'The White Storm 2: Drug Lords'

Nearly every major Hong Kong studio has agreed to march along with Beijing's heavy-handed crackdown on the Taiwanese awards show, widely known as the "Chinese Oscars."

Hong Kong film studios have found themselves in a perilous position following Beijing's boycott order of Taiwan's Golden Horse Film Awards, often referred to as the "Chinese Oscars."

China's film regulators put out a statement last week suspending "mainland films and personnel from participating" in this year's Golden Horse Awards, set to be held Nov. 23. The ban was a characteristically disproportionate reaction to last year's glitzy Golden Horse ceremony, during which a young local filmmaker made a brief statement saying she hoped Taiwan would one day be recognized as an independent country.

Many citizens of democratic and self-governed Taiwan hold passionate convictions about the territory's independence, whereas Beijing views the island as a renegade province that ultimately belongs to China. The topic of Taiwan's independence is one of the ruling Communist Party's most sensitive political concerns.

The Golden Horse Awards were established in 1962 and are considered the most prestigious honors in the Chinese-speaking movie business, with submissions mostly coming from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Mainland China. For decades, the event has been a civil and glamorous gathering place for the three regions' increasingly intertwined industries. 

Hong Kong studios are not legally bound by the boycott order, but the business implications of flouting Beijing's marching orders could present serious business risks for entertainment firms that have grown reliant on mainland China's vastly larger markets. The dilemma also comes at a fraught political moment within Hong Kong, as citywide protests over a controversial extradition bill and police brutality continue after more than 60 days. 

Taiwanese news website Line Today reported over the weekend that Hong Kong film companies were warned by Beijing that films submitted to the Golden Horse Awards will not be eligible for release in China. Hong Kong stars who attend the event also would be put on a watch list, the news source said.

Most major Hong Kong studios appear to be bowing to the pressure, but the range of reactions also can be taken as a reflection of the current political spectrum in the city state — the pro-Beijing "blue camp," the anti-extradition "yellow camp," and the so-called silent majority, which tries to stay clear of politics and focuses on making a living.

Alex Wong, founder of Hong Kong studio Filmko, which co-produced The Monkey King 1 & 2 (which collectively earned $375 million in China), told the pro-Beijing Hong Kong newspaper Wenweipo that his company "is supporting the decision of China's film bureau, so none of our films or filmmakers will participate in the Golden Horse Awards this year."

Universe Films, whose action thriller The White Storm 2: Drug Lords has earned about $190 million in China and would be a likely contender for Golden Horse honors, has said it won't participate. Leading studios Edko Films and Mei Ah said they are not participating because they do not have films ready for release this year — despite both Edko’s biopic Anita and Mei Ah's thriller Where the Wind Blows previously being listed with 2019 release dates (which may or may not materialize in time for the Golden Horse Awards). Hong Kong company Media Asia told Wenweipo that its office in China was responsible for applying for the Golden Horse Awards and that no applications were made this year.

Conversely, Golden Scene, a smaller Hong Kong company, will continue to submit applications for the Golden Horse Awards. The company previously repped the controversial 2015 political dystopian film Ten Years as its international sales agent, and produced the subsequent Ten Years films for Taiwan, Thailand and Japan, the latter of which counted Cannes Palme D’or winner Hirokazu Kore-eda as its producer. Golden Scene founder and managing director Winnie Tsang told The Hollywood Reporter the company will continue to apply for the Golden Horse Awards on behalf of its slate, "as we have done in previous years." Although she declined to disclose which films are being submitted, she said the applications will go ahead because "it is an honor and an encouragement for the filmmakers to be up for an award."

Tsang added that her company had not received any direct order from China’s film bureau not to participate in Taiwan.

A rep for veteran studio Emperor Motion Pictures, meanwhile, told THR that they are "waiting for guidelines" about whether or not they will participate.

Eyes are now on Hong Kong auteur Johnnie To, who was announced in June as the Golden Horse Awards' 2019 jury president. He has not responded to inquiries from THR about whether he will continue in the position.

Representatives for Ang Lee, who is serving as the Golden Horse Awards Committee’s chairman for 2018 and 2019, also have not responded to requests for comment on the matter.

Golden Horse Awards organizers declined to comment on the latest developments. Instead, they repeated a statement released last week: "The Committee regrets to learn about this news, if confirmed. The jury process of Golden Horse Awards is ongoing and will continue as planned, and all Golden Horse events will take place as usual."

The Hong Kong studios’ snub of the Taiwan awards comes after a meeting called by China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office last Wednesday to rally over 500 Hong Kong pro-Beijing business leaders and politicians in response to the escalating protests in the territory.

Soon after the meeting was held, the city’s leader Carrie Lam doubled down her support for the Hong Kong police, who have, international human rights groups allege, repeatedly displayed excessive use of force when confronting the protesters, such as firing over 1,800 tear gas canisters within the city since June 12. In addition to demanding a full withdrawal of the controversial extradition bill — which would allow Hong Kong residents and foreign visitors to be extradited to mainland China's politically non-independent courts, eroding Hong Kong's rule of law — protestors are demanding an independent investigation of alleged police brutality.

Front-page advertisements from the pro-Beijing Hong Kong business sector calling for the demonstrations to end began to appear in local newspapers late last week, while members of China's armed police were reportedly turning up on duty as Hong Kong police officers.

A bloody crackdown took place Sunday night when police fired rubber bullets and PepperBall rounds at retreating protesters at close range indoors, and undercover cops masquerading as protesters began making arrests within their ranks. Video footage showing police officers planting weapons in arrested student protesters’ backpacks became an incendiary cause of outcry on social media. Over 100 protestors were arrested, some seriously injured.

Seeds of China’s Golden Horse Awards ban were planted at last year's awards ceremony, when director Fu Yue, of the best documentary winner Our Youth in Taiwan, made a few brief remarks about her hopes for Taiwan's independence during her acceptance speech on stage. Some filmmakers from China subsequently refused to get on stage, and they were later absent en masse from a post-show gala dinner. 

After the anti-extradition bill protests gained momentum in Hong Kong in June, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen cited the potential collapse of the former British colony's “One Country Two Systems" political and economic framework under the rule of China’s Communist Party as a warning to the Taiwanese people about possible reunification with China. The latter then ordered a ban on its citizens from traveling to Taiwan in late July.