Though they have long been considered the benchmark for what’s happening in Chinese language cinema, if the Golden Horse Awards received any coverage in Western outlets, it was probably to announce that Lou Ye’s film Blind Massage (Tui na) scooped the pool while Diao Yi’nan’s Black Coal Thin Ice (Bai ri yan huo) went away with a disappointing single Best Art Direction Award from an impressive eight nominations. Both films launched at Berlinale 2014, but it was Black Coal, Thin Ice that has been most widely lauded by Western film festivals and journalists. Reports more atuned to the geopolitical sensitivities of the region may have noted the prominence of Mainland cinema over other Chinese language territories at these Taiwan-based awards.
If you had already skimmed all that information, you’d be forgiven for thinking you already knew everything you needed to know about this year’s Golden Horse Awards. You’d be wrong of course, as a look at the list of the winners and the “losers” reveals even more about what is currently going on in Chinese language cinema.
Earlier in the Awards ceremony, Chinese actor Chen Jianbin won a Best Supporting Actor Award for his role in Doze Niu‘s Paradise In Service (Jun zhong le yuan) about the government-funded comfort women of Taiwan’s armed forces (which opened Busan’s International Film Festival in October). This Taiwanese film had been a local box office hit and one of Chen’s key scenes was actually parodied in an on-stage skit during the ceremony. However, the Mainland actor’s success in this Taiwanese film proved to be just a harbinger of his successes yet to come.
Having been also nominated for Best Actor and Best New Director for his debut feature A Fool, many thought that was honour enough. But winning both categories, was the one thing that took the focus off the triumph of the constant accumulation of awards by Blind Massage. (for the record the Blind Massage awards were: Best Feature; Best New Performer; Best Adapted Screenplay; Best Cinematography; Best Editing; and Best Sound effects).
A Fool, adapted by Chen from a novel, told the story of a struggling middle-aged couple whose already difficult existence is further aggravated when an apparent foolish beggar moves in with them. Though the film is a natural for Berlinale, the whisper is that Cannes is giving A Fool serious study. However, with Chen’s star so rapidly rising in the East, it’s only natural that all Western festivals will also soon be in hot pursuit.
Another film destined for Western festival play, is Han Han’s The Continent (Hou Hui Wu Qi). Though famed in China for being a championship racing car driver, a singer and novelist, Han’s writing and directing debut will probably get attention from most Westerners because it has a cameo from Jia Zhang-ke and is clearly modeled on the road movies of Jim Jarmusch. Less derivative, was Coffin In the Mountain (Binguan). Possessing a darkly comic and noirish sensibility, the film consisted of four tightly interlocked stories, which detail – with the occasional fiendish wink to the audience – what happens when a village’s well-meaning people hope to cover up a murder. With a coincidental resemblance to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry this smart, witty film premiered at Venice earlier this year, but is yet to make a wider international impact.
The biggest shock of the evening – for Gong Li and others – was the Best Actress Award. There may have been a hint for the esteemed actress when Zhang Yimou’s Coming Home failed to secure any of its three other nominations, but her reaction afterward clearly indicated that Gong hadn’t really contemplated losing. Unfortunately for Gong, she did lose. All smiles on the Awards night before she promptly disappeared, the next day Gong declared that the Golden Horse Awards was “unprofessional” and she would never return.
Regardless, Exit (Hui guang zou ming qu), a simple, but well-paced mood piece, offered a superb opportunity for actress Chen Shiyang-chyi to personify a stressed-out woman on the cusp of an emotional breakthrough or breakdown. Chen had often worked with Tsai Ming-liang including on The River (He liu) which Exit faintly echoes. The word was that even when Exit was in the Golden Horse project market a couple of years ago, producers were already saying that whoever gets cast in the lead role will win a Best Actress award. Chen made good on that theory.
There were lesser films, also nominated, such as the rollicking, if overlong Taiwanese comedy Sweet Alibis (Tian mi sha ji) which dabbled with gangsters and chocolate, as well as car chases and sex changes. A local hit, it may have only received one nomination for Best Supporting Actress, but it did no better than another Taiwanese box office success, KANO (KANO) which had nominations in five categories, received the audience and FIPRESCI film critics award, but came up empty-handed when it came to the official Awards. A huge domestic hit, KANO in mostly Japanese dialogue depicts a real story from Taiwan’s colonial era of a high school baseball team consisting of Japanese, Han Chinese and indigenous Taiwanese players, who battle prejudice and some experienced sporting competitors. Too commercial for most festivals, KANO is sure to capitalize on its Taiwanese box office success by also becoming a commercial success when it plays in Japan in January, 2015. Which only goes to show that the Golden Horse isn’t the last word on the state of Chinese language cinema, but is a continuation of an international dialogue on the subject.
© FIPRESCI 2014