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Ang Lee’s Oscar win reminder of mainland China’s film failure

Ang Lee

Ang Lee

Ang Lee’s best director win at this year’s Academy Awards unleashed a wave of pride on Chinese social media sites, though for some the award – Lee’s second  – was a bittersweet reminder of mainland China’s frustrated film ambitions.

Taiwanese-American Ang Lee won the award for “Life of Pi,” a lushly shot 3D epic based on the book of the same name by Yann Martel and filmed mostly in the director’s native Taiwan.

He previously took home best director honors for 2005’s “Brokeback Mountain.”

“Congratulations to Ang Lee for winning best director! The pride of Chinese people!” Guangzhou-based journalist Gu Jian wrote on Sina Corp.’s Twitter-like Weibo microblogging service, echoing a sentiment widely shared across the site.

Yet some wondered aloud what it meant that Mr Lee had won two best director awards, while mainland China had yet to take home one.

“Taiwan has Ang Lee, Hong Kong has Wong Kar-wai – what about the mainland?” asked Paris based advertising executive Hua Feng.

“[The mainland] has SARFT,” advertising industry website Madbrief.com replied, a reference to China’s famously heavy-handed film regulator, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television.

“Like a proud son of China”

In his acceptance speech, Mr. Lee said he couldn’t have made the movie without the help of Taiwan and singled out the coastal city of Taichung, in western Taiwan, where a lot of the filming for “Life of Pi” took place. He concluded by saying thank you in Mandarin, as well as “Namaste”, a Sanskrit salutation common in India and Nepal.

While many Chinese social media users seemed proud to hear Mandarin spoken in an Oscar acceptance speech, others cracked wise about how censors would handle it.

“The word ‘Taiwan’ popped up so many times in Ang Lee’s speech. It won’t be taken down, will it?” quipped one Weibo user.

Parts of Lee’s acceptance speech in 2005 were censored in China, though the director largely attributed that propaganda authorities discomfort with the homosexual romance at the heart of “Brokeback Mountain.”

Identity is a tricky topic for global celebrities with roots in Taiwan, which China’s government and many regular Chinese consider to be a part of China. That tension was on full display in February 2012, when the sudden emergence of Taiwanese-American basketball player Jeremy Lin launched a social media shouting match between Internet users in China and Taiwan both eager to claim him as their own.

Ang Lee’s own relationship with the mainland is complex

He’s had multiple movies banned or censored by Chinese authorities, and his martial arts epic “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” earned a lukewarm reception on the mainland. Yet he’s widely celebrated in mainland media and once told the Wall Street Journal that he considers himself “like a proud son of China.”

A debate over semantics

His win inspired a debate over semantics on Weibo, with one popular social media commentator warning others to distinguish between 华人 (huaren in Mandarin), a term that refers to all ethnic Chinese people, and 中国人 (zhongguoren), which refers to citizens of China.

“Please avoid calling [Mr. Lee] zhongguoren,” wrote the commentator, who posts under the handle Pretending to be in New York. “The political flavour of this word is too strong. To forcefully impose it on someone overseas is not only overbearing and disrespectful, it’s also just a fantasy.”

Mr. Lee’s name was among the most searched terms on Sina Weibo Monday. Searches for “Ang Lee” and “best director” produced more than half a million posts by early afternoon.

Adapted from:  The Wall Street Journal – “Ang Lee Best Director Win is Bittersweet for China Film Fans”

About Political Atheist

Living in South East Asia (Vietnam & Cambodia). At the ending/starting point of the more than 1000 year old SIlk Road.


One thought on “Ang Lee’s Oscar win reminder of mainland China’s film failure

  1. China’s inability to create award winning film is symptomatic of it’s fear of human expression. I remember a review of Eileen Chang praising her work for being one of the few works that were non-political. I haven’t read or watched the Life of Pi yet, but I bet Ang Lee’s work is being recognized for creating something that transcends politics and captures the human emotion. I wonder how Ang Lee identifies his own nationality and whether it affects his film work?


    Posted by dtran288 | February 27, 2013, 12:38 pm

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