What Lee's `Life of Pi' Oscar Says of Chinese Film

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Feb. 27 (Bloomberg) -- The Oscars began at 9:30 a.m. on Monday in China. By 10 a.m., “Oscars” was the top trending topic on Sina Weibo, China’s most popular Twitter-like microblog. And by lunchtime, a mild controversy emerged.

The inadvertent perpetrator was Ang Lee, the Taiwanese-American director of “Life of Pi.” Upon receiving his second best-director award (he first won in 2005 for “Brokeback Mountain”), Lee offered what in Hollywood must have sounded like an innocuous acceptance speech, but in China and Taiwan it held deeper meaning. He thanked everyone from the “movie god” to his producers. Then he added:

“I cannot make this movie without the help of Taiwan. We shot there. I want to thank everybody there helped us. Especially the city of Taichung.”

Lee made no mention of China -- even though China claims Taiwan as a renegade province and tensions run high between them -- but he did end his speech by thanking the audience in Chinese (as well as English and Sanskrit). Was his omission of China deliberate? It’s impossible to say. (Curiously, Lee thanked China after he won in 2005.)

In Taiwan and among Taiwanese, the response to Lee’s win and acceptance speech has been rapturous. On Monday, the mayor of Taichung announced that Lee will be named an honorary citizen of the city; that night Lee’s name was emblazoned in lights atop the Taipei 101 building. Taiwanese users of Sina Weibo tweeted hundreds, if not thousands, of declarations of Taiwanese pride; this was all but unprecedented on the site, where the politics run very strongly in favor of Chinese sovereignty claims -- especially when it comes to Taiwan. Shortly after the broadcast, Hu Caipin, a self-identified Taiwanese in Beijing, tweeted:

“Ang Lee, in his acceptance speech, mentioned several times that the film was shot in Taiwan. That such a small island can draw the attention of the whole world makes me cry tears of joy. We’re forbidden to hang our national flag in public places, to sing our national anthem, and we can’t even mention the Republic of China. So at a time like this Taiwanese have a special feeling in their hearts that only Taiwanese can understand. I am proud of being a Taiwanese.”

Ordinarily, such a tweet might have provoked heaping abuse from Chinese microbloggers. Indeed, a brief look at the more than 1,600 comments left below the tweet uncovers plenty of reminders that Taiwan is not a country. Still, the Chinese response is unexpectedly low-key. Many Chinese microbloggers are either joining the celebration or wondering why a Chinese national -- rather than an ethnic Chinese, like Lee -- is not the two-time winner of what is arguably the most coveted directing award in film.

There’s no shortage of tweets embracing Lee as “the pride of the Chinese people,” and “the pride of Chinese film.” However, this patriotic cheerleading has its detractors. Tengjing Shu, a Shanghai-based film critic, summarized her objections in a lengthy mid-afternoon tweet:

“A journalist asked me what kind of influence Life of Pi and its four awards will have on Chinese film. I said that it was irrelevant to China. The awards, and the fact that Life of Pi was shot in Taiwan, only serve to highlight problems with Chinese filmmaking.”

What are those problems with Chinese filmmaking? An hour after the Oscars broadcast ended, Wang Ran, co-founder and chief executive officer of China eCapital Corp., a Beijing-based investment bank, offered what has become a fashionable answer: He pointed at the much-hated State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, China’s chief media industry regulator and censor. Tweeting to his 2.6 million Sina Weibo followers, Wang complained:

“On the same day that ethnic Chinese director Lee Ang won another Oscar, SARFT announced regulations requiring that Chinese TV documentaries should pass a review just as movies and TV dramas do. While other people merely enjoy the excitement provided by Hollywood, only SARFT takes practical steps to help Hollywood maintain its dominant status in global film.”

Wang’s chronology was incorrect -- the new documentary rule was issued on Feb. 22 -- but his concern that China’s highly regulated film and television industry inhibits creativity and international success was not. In the hours since Lee’s win, thousands of Chinese microbloggers have used their accounts to bemoan the censorship, reviews and political expectations that reduce many fine Chinese directors to little more than court filmmakers.

Examples of such filmmakers are well-known in China, with none so significant as Zhang Yimou, best known today as the director of the 2008 Olympic opening ceremonies, several high-budget kung fu films, and at least one certifiably awful attempt (2011’s “The Flowers of War”) to please the sensibilities of both the members of the Academy (it was not selected as a nominee, even in the Foreign Film category) and the sensibilities of Communist Party officials who support him. Yet, as any Chinese film fan knows, before he became the party’s favorite filmmaker, Zhang was the critically acclaimed, sometimes banned, director of the first Chinese film to be nominated for an Oscar in the foreign film category for 1990’s “Ju Dou.”

This week, though, that rebellious Zhang is little more than a fond memory, at least in the realm of Chinese social media. His career trajectory has been compared repeatedly and unfavorably to that of Ang Lee. Fairly or unfairly, the Taiwanese director has become the exemplar of artistic filmmaking, and the once-celebrated Chinese national has become a symbol of someone trapped by the expectations of higher-ups who seek only awards -- and don’t win them -- and care little for the art itself. A gentle version of this critique was offered after the awards by a Chinese national living in the U.S., who tweeted via Sina Weibo (in Chinese):

“My husband and I say Ang Lee has a story that he wants to tell and then he makes the movie, while Zhang Yimou guesses what the judges want to see in order to cater to audience tastes. There’s more than a little difference.”

In contrast to the criticism, the Chinese state media has greeted Lee’s win with warmth and extensive coverage. Nonetheless, not every news outlet and commentator is sympathetic to the negative portrayal of China’s filmmakers and their masters. On Tuesday, the ultranationalist, state-owned Global Times newspaper published an opinion piece by Zhang Yiwu, a Peking University professor, which defended the work of Chinese filmmakers while suggesting that Lee’s career trajectory -- from small independent films to big-budget award-winners -- can be instructive. But as so often happens these days in China, Zhang saved his most interesting thoughts for a tweet, which he posted to Sina Weibo on Tuesday. He takes aim at Chinese and others who would malign Chinese filmmakers, especially in comparison to Ang Lee:

“Some take Ang Lee as an example and say that mainland Chinese are incompetent, which is bigoted. Mo Yan’s Nobel Prize is far more important than the best director award, and it leaves some people extremely unhappy. They never stop scolding and they fear that the Chinese people will win. Because of the extreme rigidity of their ideology, they are unwilling to appreciate different kinds of works.”

This kind of talk -- and tweet -- doesn’t have much appeal in China outside of state bureaucracies. Meanwhile at the box office, Chinese filmgoers have spent more than $90 million on Ang Lee’s film, exceeding the receipts of almost all Chinese-made films released in 2012. Unlike the Oscars, that’s an award given by the Chinese people themselves.

(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is writing “Junkyard Planet,” a book on the global recycling industry. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the author of this article: Adam Minter at ShanghaiScrap@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net.