Why Can’t China Win an Oscar?

With Zhang Yimou in 2013 at a reception for the Flowers Of War

Early this month, the American academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences revealed the list of films from 85 countries that would compete for the Best Foreign Language Oscar. This year, mainland China is represented by Huo Jianqi’s historical epic “Xuanzang,”  which depicts the legendary seventh-century spiritual journey of Buddhist monk Xuanzang from China to India. Huang Xiaoming plays the monk who took 17 years to complete his journey.

Best Foreign Language Oscar is given to the country of origin rather than to the film director, hence its value transcends art; it’s a national triumph and a source of pride. The director is merely the messenger, like an athlete who competes at the Olympic games for a medal, and his movie is selected by a national committee.  The Chinese submission is selected by  China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT).

While several tiny countries, like Bosnia-Herzegovina or Hungary, have won an Oscar, China, the most populous nation on earth, has failed to do so since it started submitting films for consideration 37 years ago.

In fact, of the 300 films nominated by the Academy in the sixty years since it introduced the Foreign Language Film category, only 2 Chinese movies, from the mainland, scored nominations: the first was Ju Dou in 1990 and the second was Hero in 2002. Both movies were from director Zhang Yimou. The question on people’s mind is: why has the world’s largest country and soon to be the world’s largest film market  failed to secure an Oscar, and will Jianqi’s film restore its honour?

To answer this question, we need to understand the process of winning this golden trophy.

Soon after announcing the list of the competing films, several committees, consisting of several hundreds of Los-Angeles based academy members, watch the movies and select 6 of them. Those voters are mostly retired old members, who can afford the time to watch the movies, and by and large they are white Europeans, which probably explains why more than two-thirds of all nominations and 80 percent of Foreign Language Oscars have gone to European countries. But 6 years ago, the Academy tried to circumvent that by adding 3 films selected by a special executive committee, that finds artistically challenging films, overlooked by the committees of volunteering members.

The shortlist of 9 films is then winnowed down to the category’s five nominees by 3 committees based in LA, New York and London, and each is composed of active high-profile Academy members. The entire academy’s membership eventually vote for the winning film.

So with such an elaborate selection process, the Euro bias doesn’t necessarily hold. Furthermore, other Asian nations have received multiple nominations; Japan, for example, has 12. Chinese movies from Furthermore, while Taiwan and Hong Kong also secured five between them. One of Hong Kong’s nominations was snatched by none other than Zhang’s film “Raise the Red Lantern” in 1991. So exploring Zhang’s films may shed some light on the taste of the Academy’s voters.

Zhang belongs to the Fifth Generation filmmakers, who reacted against the ideological purity of Cultural Revolution cinema, that westerners deemed propaganda  rather than art. Instead of telling stories depicting heroic military struggles, his films were built out of the drama of ordinary people’s daily lives and struggles. While Cultural Revolution films used character, he favored psychological depth along the lines of European cinema. He adopted complex plots, ambiguous symbolism, and evocative imagery. He also came with a new style of shooting, in which he utilized extensive color and long shots.

Zhang’s innovative work has quickly gained him critical acclaim and propelled him to the forefront of the world’s arthouse directors, collecting top awards in major film festivals. But what truly garnered him the admiration of the international film community was his work’s political overtone that led to the banning of some of his movies. It’s no wonder that two of his Academy’s nominated pictures, “Ju Dou” and “Raise the Red Lantern” were banned for few years in China before they were released.

Over the years, the Academy has demonstrated an affection for movies that touch on political and social issues, whether they were originated at home in the US or came from abroad, such as Fahrenheit 911,  Citizenfour, The Fog of War, Spotlight, The Deer Hunter, Platoon or The Hurt Locker. Such movies have little chance of being made in China, and if they are made, they will certainly not be submitted as the official choice for Oscar consideration.

In fact, the film authorities are so hyper-image-conscious and so distrustful of their own filmmakers that in 2013 they chose a Chinese film made by a French director, Philippe Muyl’s “The Nightingale,” to represent China at the Oscars over homegrown directors’ films such as Zhang’s  post-Cultural Revolution family breakdown melodrama “Coming Home,” or Diao Yinan’s bleak, noirish detective tale “Black Coal, Thin Ice,” which had won the Berlin Film Festival that year.

In 2014, the film authorities submitted another French-made film, Jean-Jacques Annaud’s “Wolf Totem” to represent China at the Oscars, only to be rejected by the Academy for not being sufficiently Chinese. It was replaced by Han Yan’s lighthearted comedy “Go Away Mr. Tumor.”

Evidently, politics trumps artistic merit when it comes to China’s Oscar submission. The authorities’ impetus to conceal China’s blemishes is actually counterproductive to the drive for winning an Oscar, because movies are awarded when they unearth the truth and reflect on it rather than hiding it behind sumptuous images.

Zhang’s movies, however, have been chosen by the SAPPRFT to represent their country at the Academy’s awards six times. And although only two scored Oscar nominations, all of them secured Golden Globes nominations. In fact, Zhang is the only Chinese director who has been nominated for the Golden Globes awards, which are voted for by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. This is a testament, yet again, to the level of respect that Zhang has commanded outside of China, which gives him the edge over other directors when it comes to his country’s authorities’ creative restrictions.

Restriction and censorship are not the only obstacles young Chinese filmmakers face. If his/her script is approved, after waiting months or years for the authorities’ verdict, the filmmaker struggles to find financing for the project, in an environment that chases profit at the box office and has little interest in artistic merit.

Therefore, first- or second-time directors either feel pressured to conceive more commercial works or, with limited budgets, often end up making only films that lean toward the art house style. This raises another major challenge for new filmmakers: getting their films distributed.

But even if they get distributed, there seem little appetite for such movies in China. Chinese multiplex-goers have shown a strong preference for the action-packed, special-effects-laden spectaculars that are developed, if no longer made, in Hollywood.  Imported movies now reportedly account for approximately 50 percent of Chinese ticket sales, but collectively, foreign studios are permitted to distribute only 34 films a year in China. The import limit has spurred great interest in co-productions filmed in China, because those are exempt, and encouraged major Chinese corporations to make enormous investments in Hollywood studios, in order to bring more of their profitable movies to China.

To compete with this avalanche of blockbusters, Chinese filmmakers are left with no choice but to make comedies. They are relatively cheap to produce, keep the authorities happy and generate a healthy profit at the box office.

Even China’s iconic figure, Zhang, has been swept by the new tide of film commerce. His recent movies are market-driven with budgets and scale that rival Hollywood projects. So much that he even employs Hollywood stars: Christian Bale in “The Flowers Of War” (2011) and Matt Damon in the upcoming epic “The Great Wall.”

The situation has become so dire that some young filmmakers have suggested that Chinese cinema ended with the sixth generation. Indeed China has entered a vast entertainment-driven era, which will predictably make it the world’s largest film market before the end of 2018, but on the other hand renders its prospect of winning an Oscar in the foreseeable future very bleak because the Academy honors art, not commerce.

Chinese film kingpins don’t seem to be bothered by that omen. They argue that unlike small countries that rely on winning an Oscar to promote their culture to a global audience, China has the resources to achieve that on a much bigger scale and with a big profit. After all, Oscar-winning foreign films rarely make any money at the box office and often don’t appeal to the masses. Hence, Chinese movie companies, like Dalian Wanda, are opting to develop English-language blockbusters that can travel worldwide and use the peerless soft power of movies to promote Chinese culture. Such movies are perfect for international mass appeal, but anathema to Oscar voters.

Nonetheless, the Chinese film authorities are not giving up on winning an Oscar. Top Hollywood publicists are hired to promote their selected movie among Academy and Golden Globe voters. In 2012, Zhang, himself, and his actors were flown to LA in to attend several screenings of “The Flowers Of War” and host dinners and receptions for voters. His efforts resulted in a Golden Globes nomination, but not a nod from the Academy.

While big money can buy Hollywood studios and produce blockbusters, it can’t buy Oscars, and certainly not one for Xuanzang, which sank in the Chinese box office, grossing only $5 million. And unlike Zhang, Huo is considered by western critics the darling director of China’s film bureaucracy, hence he will find it hard to impress academy voters, who often approach China’s submissions with doubt and suspicion.

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