a guest post by Lee Chor Lin

It was not the best produced award ceremony. The mood was dull, all the songs (even – especially – Karen Mok’s) slow-beat, the lighting on the audience unkind and the make-up on many participants thick with excessive foundation. But there was a raw sort of jubilance, reminiscent of basketball games, with players armed with their cheerleaders for support. Our evening's host Momoko, or Taozi 陶子, pranced around to work the floor, nudging nervous nominees and even their mothers to talk.

Less than 20 minutes into the ceremony, this lethargy was energised by a combustion in the acceptance speech of the director Fu Yue 傅榆, whose film ( Our Youth in Taiwan  我们的青春, 在台湾) won best documentary. She was shaking so much and barely controlling her tears, so her producer took to the mic first to allow her time to calm down. But in fact, I think she used that time to gather her courage to say what she had been composing in her mind for such an occasion. This is what Fu Yu said :

“Youth is so wonderful, but it is in youth that you make mistakes most easily, that misguided aspirations are projected onto others. This could happen between individuals and between countries. I hope our country could perhaps be regarded as an independent entity one day – this is my biggest wish as a Taiwanese.”

Her tone was gentle, full of fragile beaten hope, of a independent film director who makes films on hard topics such as the students’ movement in 2014, of a young mother who had to count on her husband’s understanding as she put in extra hours or nights at the editing desk. The Minister of Culture nodded, Lee Ang, the Oscar-knighted auteur and Golden Horse Chairman, smiled awkwardly.

Apparently, as we read the various news feeds later on, there was a black out on this segment in the transmission in China. But someone word got out, and Chinese netizens  censured and chastised her ‘Taiwan Independence’ Taidu  台独 parlance. Her family background was instantly dug out and exposed for ridicule. Indeed, she had not been born as a Taiwanese. Her Malaysian Chinese and Indonesian Chinese parents brought her to Taiwan in 1991. The angered netizens accused her of using her film and the award to ‘purify’ her ‘impure’ (Chinese) blood. But her Minister lent support by posting on FB a back-stage picture with her.

Back in the Award theatre in Taipei, I imagined the all-you-55th-Golden-Horse-Award-attendees Wechat group beeped with centrally disseminated instructions from the capital - “Should you go on stage, insert into your speech these words - China, One China, Unified”, “Avoid post-award banquet”, “Refrain from group photo with the Taidu woman”… I stress that this was just my active imagination at work, although what happened in the next few hours would suggest I might not have been too far off the mark.

Crowned last year, Inner-Mongolian leading man Tumen 涂们, was to anoint the Best Actress, his presenting partner was Kara Hui (Hong Huiying 红惠英), the HK Kongfu goddess whose Manchu family exiled itself in the harshest poverty to Hong Kong after 1949. Tu’s avuncular banality belies a hastily mustered up patriotism, as he mistakenly addressed his host as China Taiwan (Zhongguo Taiwan 中国台湾), drastically demoting the island’s political status. The bone of contention in countless international arena, where Taiwanese representatives were either forced to withdraw or thrown out as they refused to be branded China Taipei, is now landing right in the heart of Taiwan’s raison d’être, the Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall. It must have felt like getting slapped by your guest you just wined and dined lavishly in your own home.

Later Zhang Yimou, moghul of China films, but first time Golden Horse nominee, would be crowned as the best of his kind. Zhang, finessing the art of self-deprecation, and trying hard to keep a balance between dignified patriotism and graceful gratitude, failed too to sooth the gaping wound. His choice of words came actually sounding good-natured: “The nominee-directors (at the Golden Horse) are all very strong. It shows a ‘belt’ of continuity in China’s directors, we have very young directors, as well as old first-time nominees, like me…” Subtle as it was, some Taiwanese netizens were offended all the same.

Gong Li, formerly Zhang’s muse and girlfriend, who chaired the jury, sat sphinx-like in her glittering gown, her face progressively darkening and souring as the night wearily inched on. Taozi the host was visibly perturbed, on the brink of inciting something more dramatic as the climax finally approached with the announcement of awards for Best Actor, Actress and Film.

In any film awards, when a film wins best Director, the chances of winning in the last categories go down. So too Zhang Yimou and his ink-painting Cloud-Gate‘esque oeuvre “Shadow”, especially in the generally pro-avant-garde and proletarian mood of this year’s Golden Horse. Sure enough, Best Actress is Taiwanese Hsieh Ying-hsuan 谢盈萱, Taiwanese stage actress from Chang-hua 彰化; Best Actor went to Chinese Xu Zheng 徐峥 from Dying To Survive 我不是药神, an indie activist film about untested cancer drugs that grossed US$453 million since its release in July this year; and the Best Film was accepted by the tear-drenched cast and crew of China’s super nova indie Chinese director Hu Bo 胡波who committed suicide at age 29 before releasing his four hours of bleak road trip, An Elephant Sitting Still 大象席地而坐. Emotion ran high, Hu’s mother was speechless, so Wang Hongwei (王红卫literally Wang Red Guard, what, you’d ask Wang’s parents, do you think you are doing to your son?), Hu Bo’s teacher in directing class at the Beijing Film Academy, gave what I thought was the most poignant and elegantly neutral speech this evening, while the all-male cast stood on stage and cried like babies.

Wang goes: “ This award is not given only to Hu Bo, but to a whole generation of young directors. This award is the best reward to those who had been running around for the film over so many years, a well-deserved pat on the shoulder to those who love Hu Bo and those who love this film. As the most prestigious platform for films in huayu, it is both a charismatic and brave act for the Golden Horse jury to name Elephant the best film (note: Wang used the term huayu 华语,hence Chinese language/s and not Zhongguo). I hope we will value the possibilities the award has created for us and make more films, newer in spirit and better.”

Just when we began to bask in the aura of Huayu film triumph and when Taozi was wrapping up this very prolonged ceremony, Gao Yitian, executive producer of Elephant suddenly signalled his wish to speak, much to her chagrin: “Oh I see, you need to buchong 补充, add on…” Gao, programme director the First Film Festival that harvests the best new films of the best crop of young Chinese directors, seemed compelled to address us to correct Teacher Wang’s over ingratiation to the host, for he said, searching desperately a way to weave patriotism into platitude: “Film transcends everything, it can unify language” – and there, Gao called out the elephant in the room pronouncing the U word. And the entendre we were about to savour is now crushed.

Each year, the Golden Horse Award is remembered by controversy, so its 55th edition this year is no exception. But it is fuelled by the morbid tension that will make or break the spirit of the huayu film world and its magic. This year's edition, with its overwhelming show of films from China naturally prompted a sense of keen competition for Hong Kong and Taiwan, whose identities are constantly challenged by the Mainland’s ascendency.

They responded gently though with a tenacity that contrasts the strong-man style from the north. The Hong Kong winner of best supporting actor, Ben Yuen 袁富华, gave us in Cantonese an eloquent and moving speech about being the ubiquitous supporting actor for 30 years and still wanting to go on. The Taiwanese winners would direct their victory cry to their mom and dad, in Hokkien, tears welling up, too. You don’t get this sort of eager pageant of languages elsewhere. Here at the Golden Horse, you get to witness a variety of Chineseness at play, of an assortment of sounds and cadences, and of different comfort levels.

Alas the war cries did nothing to unify the different aspirations, as Gao Yitian had hoped their winning films would. In fact, the presence of China was conspicuously absent in the post-Award banquet, defying the proposed general ethos of unity.

update: Two days after this was written, newspapers have started to report that China will ban citizens from attending future awards.