The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fearful of political criticism, China won’t show the Oscars live

Beijing’s decision adds a new wrinkle to the Hollywood-China relationship

A scene from “Do Not Split,” a film about the 2019 Hong Kong democracy protests. The movie, which has been nominated for an Oscar in the documentary short category, appears to be one of the reasons China won't air the Oscars live. (ShortsTV)

With a Mandarin-language movie nominated for best international feature and a Chinese-born woman the front-runner for best director, this year’s Oscars should have been an opportunity for China to take a victory lap.

Instead, the annual ceremony is becoming something else in one of the world’s largest film markets: a thorn in its side. The developments are turning a potential moment of easy Hollywood harmony into a political flash point and underlining the growing complexity of the industry’s relationship with China.

The Beijing-backed Hong Kong broadcaster TVB said this week it will not air the April 25 Academy Awards telecast in the city, marking the first time in more than 50 years it will fail to do so. It follows Chinese media regulators’ decision earlier in March not to air the Oscars live on its streaming platforms. A censored version is likely to air later.

The reason appears to be “Do Not Split,” a 35-minute film made at the front lines of the 2019 Hong Kong democracy protests that has been nominated in the documentary short category. Directed by Norwegian filmmaker Anders Hammer and focusing on such protesters as Joey Siu, a North Carolina-born and Hong Kong-raised activist, the film covers the siege of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and other key moments during the protests, providing an immediacy-filled look at the crackdown.

The movie appears to have Chinese regulators worried about new attention on the protests, which led to sweeping arrests and resulted in the passing of an infamous “national security law” restricting free speech in the city. The Communist Party is highly sensitive to discussion of its handling of the protests and fearful of provoking any future ones.

Additionally, the government may be concerned about a platform for filmmaker Chloe Zhao, whose “Nomadland” is a front-runner for best picture and director. While the Frances McDormand-starring movie focuses on itinerant workers in the modern American West, it comes from a Chinese-born director who once made comments critical of China.

Hollywood decidedly needs China, which is a huge moviegoing market. In 2019, the last covid-free movie year, its $9.2 billion in box office was second only to the U.S., which rang up $11.4 billion in ticket sales.

Yet Chinese citizens’ interest in Hollywood product has been sinking as local-language product has risen. In 2019 only seven of the top 20 box-office movies in China came from Hollywood studios, down from 12 just two years earlier. Attempts to specifically appeal to the market with “Mulan” failed.

In a joint Zoom interview with Siu on Friday, Hammer said that he was perplexed but not entirely saddened by Beijing’s Oscar move.

“We think this brings more attention to the documentary,” he said. “I find it hard to explain their logic. Because it definitely helps us.”

Hammer noted the irony: A cri de coeur for free speech was now the reason a global telecast would be censored. “It’s just a continuation of what we see in our movie.”

Siu said Beijing’s action “doesn’t seem very shocking or surprising” but she was disheartened by what it meant for artists at the Oscars. “It’s a very sad situation. All these talented directors who are outside China may not be seen,” she said.

A spokesman for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which oversees the Oscars, did not reply to a request for comment.

In the past, the Oscars have been aired live in the morning in Beijing on M1905, a state-run video site. It is not clear how and in what form it will be shown now. It remains unlikely the ceremony will be shown in Hong Kong at all.

Reports from Bloomberg News and Radio Free Asia said that the Communist Party had told all media outlets to play down the Oscars generally and the Zhao and “Do Not Split” awards in particular.

The moves come even as Derek Tsang’s Mandarin-language “Better Days,” an apolitical teen romance that was a huge hit on the mainland, has been nominated for best international feature as the official Hong Kong submission. Such an event would normally be a reason for China to celebrate: No film submitted by either Hong Kong or the mainland has won the foreign prize in its 65-year history.

Hammer said he is not likely to be able to travel from Europe due to pandemic-related restrictions and hopes to connect remotely. Siu, who fled Hong Kong six months ago fearing for her safety, currently lives in D.C., where she says she faces online harassment from pro-Party users of social media. She still has hopes of traveling to Los Angeles for the ceremony. Hammer said if the film wins he planned on making Chinese-government crackdowns the focus of his speech.

So far, the academy has not made requests from or put any pressure on the pair, Hammer and Siu said.

For the academy, this was supposed to be a time to celebrate a newfound globalism. Half of the group’s 819 new members this year hail from countries outside the United States. And it’s coming off a year in which “Parasite,” a Korean-language movie, became the first non-English language film to win the Oscar for best picture.

Yet the China news provides an example of how tricky such harmony can be in a world where political activism among filmmakers is both common and easily disseminated. It also shows the conflict in which China can find itself, culturally seeking Hollywood’s approval but politically worried about its criticisms.

Zhao could be another source of those broadsides. The director, 39, was born in China, but spent much of her teenage years in the United Kingdom and her adulthood in the United States. Her film, a front-runner for the best picture prize since it won top honors at the Venice and the Toronto Film Festivals in September, was first celebrated in China, with media awash in news of its April release.

Zhao’s stepmother is a popular actress, Song Dandan, and her father a successful businessman. When she won the Golden Globe for directing and her film won best motion picture-drama in February, people in China poured on to social-media sites to express their pride, and official media outlets congratulated Zhao Ting, as she is known there.

But shortly after, comments surfaced from a 2013 Filmmaker Magazine interview in which Zhao said the country was “a place where there are lies everywhere.” Many of China’s so-called netizens quickly disavowed her, and soon promotional materials for “Nomadland” disappeared online. The film is now unlikely to be released in China. And the decision to tape-delay the Oscars is seen as a way to ensure any political comments she makes can be scrubbed out.

There is even a possibility “Better Days” is perceived as problematic by Chinese regulators. The movie drew 11 nominations at the government-sanctioned Golden Rooster awards in November. But Tsang has since been cut out of a role on a popular reality show, possibly because netizens discovered an alleged picture of him at the Umbrella Revolution, a set of Hong Kong protests in 2014, and his standing in the country is unclear.

Experts on China-Hollywood relations say they see important consequences in the Oscars dynamic — particularly since Zhao directed upcoming Marvel movie “Eternals.” The November film would seem to be a slam dunk to nab a coveted distribution slot in China; Disney has a strong relationship with the Chinese government and Marvel films tend to perform extremely well there. But Zhao’s comments at or around the Oscars could change that.

“I think if she says something about China it will be interesting, and if she doesn’t that will be interesting for an entirely different reason,” said Aynne Kokas, a University of Virginia professor and author of “Hollywood Made In China,” about their relationship. “There’s a financial imperative for her not to tick off the Chinese government. But maybe she sees a moral imperative to stand her ground.”

A spokeswoman for Searchlight Pictures, the Disney-owned unit that has released and is campaigning “Nomadland,” declined to comment. She referred Zhao requests to her publicist, who was not immediately available for comment.

The Oscars controversy suggests the friction that can happen between two forms of current Hollywood: the activist one intent on speaking out about human rights and the corporate one interesting in packaging global product for a wide audience.

Even as the biggest studios such as Disney, Paramount and Universal go out of their way to make apolitical movies that will pass muster with regulators, they can still get caught up in controversy. Disney owns Searchlight, which makes more independent-minded movies, and hired Zhao for “Eternals” in a bid to bring new perspectives to its storytelling.

And while “Do Not Split” is produced by Field of Vision, an independent documentary company, the academy, the quintessential Hollywood institution, honors documentaries, which can often be political.

“This isn’t the first time China and Hollywood are going to be at cross-purposes and it isn’t the last,” said a producer who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they have business relationships in Asia. “And often something on either side — free speech or money — will have to give.”