Kiwi Chow says the Golden Horse awards have now become "a free outlet especially for Hong Kong movies that cannot be distributed in Hong Kong"

Taipei (AFP) - With no mainstream Chinese films showing for the third year running, Taiwan’s top film festival may have lost some lustre, but directors and critics say it remains a crucial bulwark against Beijing’s censors.

Long dubbed the Chinese-language “Oscars”, the Golden Horse Film Awards will kick off in Taipei on Saturday – again without the legion of Chinese filmmakers and stars who once used to walk the red carpet.

It ran afoul of Beijing when a Taiwanese director called for the island’s independence in an acceptance speech at the 2018 ceremony, triggering an official boycott the following year.

China claims self-ruled Taiwan as part of its territory to be retaken one day, by force if necessary.

There were no mainland films in the 2019 nomination list after China’s national film board ordered directors and actors to boycott the event.

Several Hong Kong films dropped out while international sponsors cut ties with the awards that year under pressure from Beijing.

While plans to boycott were not spelt out the following two years, commercial mainland cinema and some advertisers have continued to steer clear.

Hong Kong director Jun Li, whose social drama “Drifting” is a frontrunner at this year’s awards, said it was “obvious” that strained relations between China and Taiwan have affected the awards.

“Anyone would be lying if they tell you they don’t feel the tension,” he told AFP.

Li’s film has the most nominations at 12, including best film and best director, and it tackles Hong Kong’s notorious inequality with a story of homeless people taking authorities to court.

- ‘Courting trouble’ -

This file picture shows Taiwanese actress Karena Lam, winner of the best actress Golden Horse award in 2015

Chinese films once dominated Golden Horse nominations but last year and this year saw just two films from the mainland in the running for best documentary and best animated short film.

According to organisers, over 200 Chinese and Hong Kong films submitted for competition this year, although film industry sources say they were mostly independent productions unlikely to hit theatres.

Analysts say mainstream Chinese cinema stayed away for fear of repercussions.

“For mega-production Chinese commercial movies, submitting to the Golden Horse awards can be courting trouble,” Wonder Weng, from the Taiwan Film Critics Society, told AFP.

Weng added that the Golden Roosters – the mainland’s own premier film awards – was being held this year on the same night as the Golden Horse bash.

“This apparently sends a message that there is a rivalry,” he said.

Golden Horse continues to nominate the kind of films that would never get past China’s censors.

This year two Hong Kong films that explore the city’s 2019 pro-democracy protests, as well as a Chinese documentary about Tibet, are nominated.

A Chinese animation seen as a metaphor for Hong Kong’s unrest and Beijing’s authoritarian rule has also been given a nod.

China has imposed a sweeping national security law in Hong Kong, once a thriving cinema hub, to crush dissent, and new mainland style political censorship rules have been introduced for films.

In one recent example, authorities blocked the screening of Taiwanese short film “Piglet Piglet” unless scenes relating to the island’s 2020 elections were removed, which the director refused.

- ‘Free outlet’ -

Film critic Weng says the Golden Horse awards “sets the benchmark” for Chinese-language cinema as the only platform open to all subjects.

Last year, two Hong Kong films that cast an uncomfortable spotlight on China won accolades, and one of the winners proclaimed support for democracy activists in an acceptance speech read by a representative.

“I think the award has now become a free outlet especially for Hong Kong movies that cannot be distributed in Hong Kong,” said Hong Kong director Kiwi Chow, who has a nomination this year.

This year two Hong Kong films that explore the city's 2019 pro-democracy protests are nominated

“It gives film producers a way out under the current political climate,” he told AFP.

Chow’s “Revolution of Our Times,” which takes its name from a pro-democracy protest slogan, is contending for best documentary and has never been shown commercially in Hong Kong.

He has also sold the rights and masters overseas to avoid Hong Kong’s new censorship and national security laws.

Fellow Hong Kongers Rex Ren and Lam Sum are vying for best new director for their feature film “May You Stay Forever Young”, which is also set against the backdrop of the pro-democracy protests.

Another critics’ top pick for best documentary is “Dark Red Forest” by Chinese director Jin Huaqing, on how some 20,000 Tibetan nuns are forced to give up practising their faith under China’s rule.

“I am gratified to see that the (Golden Horse) awards have managed to keep their courage,” Chow told AFP. “I think that’s also what art is meant to pursue.”