Why China Changed its Foreign-Language Oscar Submission at the Last Minute

'Go Away Mr. Tumor' Screengrab H 2015

The Academy says Jean-Jacques Annaud's 'Wolf Totem' was ineligible, but Chinese authorities may have had their own reasons for making the switch to 'Go Away, Mr. Tumor.'

China's selection of Go Away, Mr. Tumor as its official submission for the foreign-language Oscar race came as a shock to industry watchers and Chinese moviegoers alike when the list of hopefuls was announced on Oct. 8.

The feel-good romantic comedy was one of the biggest hits of the summer at the Chinese box office, but it is conspicuously lacking in the gravitas and critical acclaim common to Oscar contenders.

Period epic Wolf Totem, a China-France co-production with influential backers, had been widely tipped by the Chinese press as a lock for the country's nomination.

In August, the producers of Wolf Totem said that they were told their film would be China's submission. And as recently as Sept. 21, sources close to the deliberations within China's Film Bureau, the government body that makes the country's Oscar selection each year, told The Hollywood Reporter that Wolf was indeed the consensus choice.

Even Go Away Mr. Tumor's 31-year-old director, Han Yan, seems to have been caught off-guard by the honor. Upon waking up to the news on Friday morning — official word came from the Academy, not China — the director took to Weibo to let his followers know that he hadn't been aware of the decision until just hours prior and felt "extremely lucky." He later gave an interview to Sina's news site saying that he had to scramble to submit the necessary paperwork after being informed that his film had been picked. Usually, Chinese directors submit an application for consideration to the Film Bureau months in advance of the Academy's annual Oct. 5 submission deadline and make their intentions known to the Chinese public prior (Chinese auteur Jia Zhangke did just that days before the deadline on behalf of his film Mountains May Depart, kicking off something of an online controversy with the Wolf Totem camp).

So, what happened?

On Oct. 11, Chinese state media reported that Wolf Totem was rejected by the Academy as China's submission because too many of its key creative staff were non-Chinese. China Film News, a news outlet run by China's state broadcasting administration, said Saturday that the Film Bureau had received word from Oscars organizers on Oct. 5 that the film did not meet official requirements and a new title would have to be put forward instead.

An academy spokesperson confirmed to THR that China submitted Wolf Totem but that its foreign-language film executive committee, in a meeting on Oct. 2, concluded that it failed to meet the Academy's requirement that most of the film's key creative personnel hail from the submitting country. As a result, China was invited to submit a different film.

Although Wolf Totem's lead cast are Chinese and the film was a co-production backed by China Film Co., the movie's director Jean-Jacques Annaud is French, as are its lead screenwriter, Alain Godard, and much of the production staff. Wang Weimin, one of Wolf Totem's Chinese producers, told the local press that he had believed his film had enough Chinese involvement to qualify, given that the Film Bureau last year nominated Nightingale, another Sino-French co-production from a French director — Philippe Muyl — for the foreign-language category.

While the Academy was officially behind the switch, a source close to the discussions in the Film Bureau tells THR that some of China's high-placed regulators were welcoming of the late-game change.

"Someone from from the top said that they don't want a foreign director representing China two years in a row," says the source, who asked not to be named. "They [were] afraid Chinese directors will protest and many production companies will hire more foreign directors, which is not healthy for the domestic film market."

Go Away, Mr. Tumor, produced by Wanda Pictures, is based on the autobiographical online comics of the late Chinese cartoonist Xiang Yao. The film stars stars actress Bai Baihe as a young illustrator who falls in love with her doctor (Hong Kong heartthrob Daniel Wu) after she is diagnosed with brain cancer. The film grossed nearly 700 million yuan (about $110.7 million at current exchange rates) in China.

Although the film has legions of young fans, many Chinese moviegoers have taken to social media to criticize the submission of Mr. Tumor for Oscar contention, saying it is too lightweight and an inappropriate choice. 

Said one memorable Weibo commentator: "It may be a nice movie, but sending this [film] to run for the best foreign picture on behalf of China is like nominating a well-behaved student for the Noble Prize."