The Chinese government has reportedly told its local media channels not to transmit live coverage of the Oscars and to downplay the awards ceremony. The move follows the nomination of “Do Not Split,” a 35-minute chronicle of the pro-democracy struggles in Hong Kong, in the documentary short subject category.
The order reportedly came from the propaganda department of the Chinese Communist Party and instructed Chinese media to only report on non-controversial awards.
Such instructions are not intended for publication or dissemination overseas and are difficult to verify. The matter was first reported by Hong Kong’s Apple Daily and Radio Free Asia, and subsequently also by Bloomberg.
Co-directed by Norway’s Anders Hammer and produced by Hammer and Charlotte Cook for The Intercept-owned documentary unit Field of Vision, the 35-minute film shows footage of the 2019 street protests in Hong Kong against the city government’s planned extradition law. Two marches in June 2019 were reported as attracting one million and two million participants, respectively, from a population of 7.5 million.
The film follows the increase in physical violence and growing desperation by the pro-democracy camp after the extradition law was abandoned, only to be replaced in June 2020 with a Beijing-imposed National Security Law. It also discusses the erosion of rights of freedom of expression and the media.
Oscar nominations were announced on Monday this week. The winners will be revealed at a ceremony in Los Angeles on April 26.
The gag order illustrates how politics are complicating almost every aspect of entertainment, culture and the arts in mainland China and former British colony Hong Kong.
The Oscar nominations contained two other pieces of news that might otherwise have been cheered by Chinese authorities: six nominations, including best film, for “Nomadland” by Chinese-born director Chloe Zhao; and the nomination of Hong Kong’s representative “Better Days,” in the best international feature category.
Since Zhao’s Golden Globe directing prize win in February, “Nomadland” has sparked a storm of controversy in China. State media and social media alike initially blazed with pride and sought to claim Zhao’s historic success for China. But within days, social media users unearthed two previous interviews given by Zhao to foreign news outlets.
In the first, Zhao told the Australian website news.com.au that “the U.S. is now my country.” Zhao’s last three films have been U.S. productions and Chinese netizens took her comments to mean that Zhao may no longer hold a Chinese passport. That section of the interview was online in December 2020, but had been deleted some time before Feb. 16, 2021.
The second interview appeared in New York-based Filmmaker Magazine in 2013. Explaining why she chose to make a film (2015 drama “Songs My Brothers Taught Me”) about a Native American teen on a North Dakota reservation, Zhao said: “It goes back to when I was a teenager in China, being in a place where there are lies everywhere.” She added: “You felt like you were never going to be able to get out.
“A lot of info I received when I was younger was not true, and I became very rebellious toward my family and my background,” said the director. The comments had been removed from the magazine’s website by Feb. 15, 2021.
“Nomadland” has been penciled in for an April 23 release in China. But it’s no longer certain that it will go ahead.
The trajectory of “Better Days” is less controversial, but just as twisty.
Directed by Hong Kong-based director Derek Tsang, the film is a mainland China-set melodrama that mixes up a school bullying tale with a story of mismatched love. It was set to have its world premiere in February 2019 at the Berlin Film Festival, but at the last minute it was withdrawn by its production team, amid messages of regret from Tsang. No meaningful explanation was ever advanced, but it seems likely that the gutsy telling of disaffected youth caused Chinese authorities to rethink the permission given for it to screen overseas.
After a couple more false starts, “Better Days” was allowed to release in Chinese theaters, where it proved to be a smash hit, earning RMB1.55 billion ($238 million).
That does not mean authorities were cool with the film. Mainland China favored an overtly patriotic sports drama “Leap” as its Oscar contender. That left Hong Kong, a Special Administrative Area belonging to China, to select “Better Days.”
In recent days, arts and culture have become the center of another storm in Hong Kong, where pro-Beijing forces are politically ascendant.
On Monday, under pressure from Beijing-loyal newspapers, cinemas and arts centers in Hong Kong canceled planned commercial screenings of “Inside the Red Brick Wall,” another award-winning documentary about the pro-democracy protest movement. It was accused of breaching the National Security Law by stirring up hatred for the Hong Kong police and for China.
On Wednesday, it was the turn of broadcaster RTHK and the West Kowloon Cultural District’s museums to be attacked by Beijing supporters.
New People’s Party lawmaker Eunice Yung claimed that upcoming shows at the WKCD’s M+ Museum are causing great concern to many members of the public, because they are “spreading hatred” against China. “How come there will be display of art pieces that are suspected to have breached the national security law and also are an insult to the country?” Yung asked in the Legislative Council.
Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam responded by saying that authorities will be “on full alert” to make sure museum exhibitions in Hong Kong do not undermine national security.
“I’m sure staff are able to tell what is freedom of artistic expression and whether certain pieces are really meant to incite hatred or to destroy relations between two places (Hong Kong and mainland China) and undermine national security,” Lam said.