Golden Horses and Indie Spirits

Hu Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still (2018)

Saturday night’s presentation of the fifty-fifth Golden Horse Awards, the Oscars of Chinese-language cinema, was remarkable not only for the list of winners selected by the jury headed up by Gong Li but also for the controversy kicked up during the ceremony. Before turning to the political tensions that electrified the evening in Taipei, let’s note that Hu Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still, which Notebook editor Daniel Kasman has described as “a four-hour story of such constant despair that not a single moment of joy or literal ray of sunlight pierces its desperate drama,” won best feature and adapted screenplay—and the audience award. Hu, a novelist who adapted his own short story for his first feature, was only twenty-nine when he killed himself shortly after completing Elephant. His mother, overcome with emotion, could barely speak when she accepted the awards on his behalf.

The roster of illustrious presenters included Golden Horse chairperson Ang Lee, Andy Lau, Hou Hsiao-hsien, and Zhang Yimou, whose Shadow was the numerical winner of the night, taking four awards, including best director. Set during the Three Kingdoms period (220–280 AD), Shadow centers on a king seeking to reclaim his homeland for his people. When it premiered in Venice, Tom Charity, dispatching to Sight & Sound, found that “while Shadow boasts one spectacular protracted action sequence, Zhang seems more taken with the chichi set decoration than the bodies posed in front of it.”

Scoring three awards each were Mag Hsu and Hsu Chih-yen’s Dear Ex, which is about a woman fighting with her late husband’s male partner over an insurance payout; Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, which Steve Macfarlane, writing for Slant, calls “a swirling mood piece, an epic rumination on memory and loss”; and Wen Muye’s Dying to Survive, a comedy centering on a drug store owner campaigning to import cheaper pharmaceuticals. Variety’s Patrick Frater notes that, when it was released this summer, Dying to Survive “had an almost immediate impact on mainland Chinese government policy.”

With Taiwanese local elections scheduled for Saturday, the strains in relations between mainland China and Taiwan “have rarely been worse than at present,” writes Frater, and this weekend’s awards will do little to ease tensions. Accepting the award for best documentary, Fu Yue, director of Our Youth in Taiwan, which chronicles the Sunflower Student Movement of 2014, said that her “biggest wish as a Taiwanese” was to see Taiwan recognized as an “independent entity.” And China, of course, does not, regarding the island instead as a breakaway province. As if in reply to Fu Yue, Tu Men, an actor from the mainland, announced that he was honored to present an award in “China, Taiwan,” which, as the BBC’s Cindy Sui notes, is “a phrase many Taiwanese object to.” Yesterday, Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen chimed in on Facebook, declaring that “we have never accepted the term ‘Chinese Taiwan’ . . . Taiwan is just Taiwan.”

Shelly Kraicer, a critic and programmer of East Asian films for the Vancouver International Film Festival, has been tracking the fallout and notes on Twitter that rumors are running rampant regarding measures that China may take in response to the controversy, including possibly banning Chinese celebrities from attending the Golden Horse Awards next year. For his part, Ang Lee has been trying to defuse the situation by insisting that the awards are about cinema, not politics, and as for the ceremony, “we prefer it to remain pure and for there to be no disturbances.”

Indie Spirits

Film Independent has announced the nominations for the thirty-third Spirit Awards, presented to films made for twenty million dollars or less. Documentary filmmaker Jeremiah Zagar’s first narrative feature, We the Animals, a “tiny, uncut gem of a movie,” as Jeannette Catsoulis has put it in the New York Times, leads with five. At Slant, Chuck Bowen finds that Zagar’s portrait of a family teetering on the poverty line in upstate New York and trapped in a cycle of domestic violence and reconciliation captures “working-class hopelessness with remarkable acuity.”

With the nominations spread so evenly this year, there’s no clear frontrunner. Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, and Paul Schrader’s First Reformed all follow We Are the Animals with four nominations each. Racking up three each are Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace, Barry Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk, and Tamara Jenkins’s Private Life. The awards will be presented on February 23 in a tent in Santa Monica during a late afternoon ceremony that promises to be, as always, a more relaxed affair than the following day’s presentation of the Academy Awards.

Craft Awards

Last week, both the European Film Awards and the British Independent Film Awards announced the winners of what BIFA’s calling the “craft awards.” Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite has won five BIFAS (production design, cinematography, casting, costumes, and hair and makeup), while You Were Never Really Here wins two (music and sound). BIFA’s also announced that it’ll be presenting the Richard Harris Award for outstanding contribution to British film to Judi Dench. The European Film Academy, in the meantime, has named eight winners, with two of its awards (costumes and hair and makeup) going to Matteo Garrone’s Dogman.

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