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Hong Kong's Oscars blackout

Scott Roxborough
March 31, 2021

The ban on the Academy Awards broadcast in Hong Kong this year could mean tightening censorship from mainland China, says DW's film expert Scott Roxborough.

A photograph showing golden Oscar statuettes made of chocolate
Mainland China and Hong Kong have banned the Oscars broadcast this yearImage: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/dpa/picture alliance

News that this year's Academy Awards won't be broadcast in Hong Kong—the first time the ceremony hasn't been shown on local TV there in 50 years —is raising censorship concerns.

Critics fear the move, announced this week, could be part of a broader crackdown on real or perceived critics of the Chinese government. English-language Hong Kong newspaper The Standard suggested that the Oscars ban was also in response to Chinese filmmaker Chloe Zhao's critical comments about China and her multiple nominations for the awards this year. Zhao's US drama "Nomadland" is the frontrunner to win the top prize for Best Picture at the Academy Award ceremony next month.

Media regulators in Beijing, according to Bloomberg News, have ordered state-controlled media on the Chinese mainland to not carry the Oscars live and to "play down" any reporting on the awards.

A still from Chloe Zhao's 'Nomadland'
Actor Frances McDormand in a still from Chloe Zhao's 'Nomadland'Image: picture-alliance/Everett Collection/Searchlight Pictures

TVB, Hong Kong's top free-to-air broadcaster, which is partly-owned by mainland business interests and is seen as very pro-Beijing, this week said it was dropping its planned coverage of the Oscars, an event it has carried live on its English-language channel every year since 1969.

Beijing: Wary of critics

TVB said the move was made for "purely commercial" reasons, suggesting no one in Hong Kong would be interested in watching. This seems odd, particularly this year, when two Hong Kong films are Oscar contenders.

"Better Days," an anti-bullying drama from director Derek Tsang, is up for best international film (the first Hong Kong movie nominated to that category since "Farewell My Concubine" won the Oscar in 1994) alongside short documentary nominee "Do Not Split" a look at Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests — and the brutal police crackdown of same— on the island in 2019.

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While the documentary may have offended some in the Hong Kong government, the real source of the Hong Kong Oscar blackout is more likely the Internet sleuths on the mainland who, after Chloe Zhao on February 28 became the first Asian woman to win best director and best film at the Golden Globes, dug through her old interviews. In a couple, Zhao appears to be critical of China, though that is a matter of interpretation.

No 'Nomadland' in China?

The most "offensive" quote stems from an interview Zhao gave to New York's Filmmaker Magazine nearly a decade ago. Describing what drew her to the story of her first feature, "Songs My Brother Taught Me," about a struggling Native American living on a reservation in North Dakota, Zhao said the story took her back "to when I was a teenager in China, being in a place where there are lies everywhere."

Whether the director meant to critique an authoritarian government, or just express the universal nature of teenage angst, is open to interpretation.

But it was enough to trigger an anti-Zhao backlash. Mainland media, which had initially held up Zhao as a national hero, changed tack. Beijing's internet censors swiftly descended, blocking most references to Zhao and "Nomadland" online. Now there are concerns the film, which had passed the Chinese censor board and was scheduled for release in China April 23, could be retroactively banned.

In a widely-shared Weibo post from earlier this year, Hu Xijin, the editor of the influential state-backed tabloid Global Times, noted that "The ongoing backlash against Zhao is the price she has to pay for what she said," but argued that "Nomadland" shouldn't be pulled from cinemas and that China "should to be able to accommodate some conflicts and inconsistencies."

Critics beware

"Nomadland" isn't alone. Many see the response against Zhao and the Oscars as part of a broader trend within the mainland government to pressure Hollywood into telling more pro-Chinese stories and to blackball any directors deemed critical of Beijing. The Hollywood Reporter quoted insiders familiar with the Chinese industry that Beijing was tightening up its control of US imported films and responding to supposed anti-China criticism from directors.

A segment of the ensemble drama "Berlin, I Love You," directed by and starring Chinese dissent artist Ai Weiwei, was cut from the final version of the movie because some of the producers and financiers of the film feared a mainland backlash.

The big-budget videogame adaptation "Monster Hunter" got pulled from Chinese cinemas just one day into its release last December because of outrage sparked by an ambiguous (but definitely unfunny) joke deemed overtly racist by online patriots.

A big market for Hollywood

Berlin Film Festival censored?

China has major leverage over Hollywood because of the sheer size of its market. If Beijing blocks a film from mainland release, that can mean millions, even hundreds of millions of dollars in lost box office revenue. That leverage is even greater right now, with China's cinemas open for business as theaters in many countries remain shut because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The irony, with regards to Zhao and "Nomadland," is that China could have used the Oscars to score major points. Zhao has the opportunity to become the first Chinese director to win the Academy Award for best picture.

Unlike Ai Weiwei, she's not a public dissident. Zhao's father used to run a state-owned steel company in China. Her stepmother, Song Dandan, is a beloved TV sitcom actress. Zhao's Oscar glory would have made for the perfect piece of state propaganda. If only Beijing wasn't so determined to control the narrative.

Scott Roxborough is a film and television expert at DW Culture and Lifestyle and heads the European bureau for the entertainment industry magazine The Hollywood Reporter.