Reflections on a Golden Horse

Written by Chris Berry.

In November of last year, I had the great honour of serving as a member of the final jury for the 54th Golden Horse Film Awards in Taipei. The Golden Horse is something like the Oscars for the world of Chinese-language cinema, so I was both surprised and overwhelmed to be asked to serve by CEO of the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival, Wen Tian-Hsiang. Only one other Westerner has served on the jury in the last ten years: Professor Michael Berry (no relation!) The dates fell right in the middle of semester, making it difficult to get away. I remain grateful to my university for letting me go, and to my students for tolerating video-recorded lectures in my absence. I would like to take this opportunity to reflect on the experience.

Of course, I cannot discuss opinions expressed in jury deliberations. And I do not want to get into a debate about any individual award, although I can say that I was happy with the results in general and particularly pleased to see so many go to relative newcomers. However, what I can do is offer some insights into the workings of the most important Chinese-language film awards.

Indeed, the opportunity to get an understanding of into how the Golden Horse works from the inside was a big attraction for me. Together with Luke Robinson, I recently led an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)-funded network that looked at film festivals in the Chinese-speaking world and festivals of Chinese films elsewhere. It resulted in a co-edited book called Chinese Film Festivals: Sites of Translation (Palgrave, 2017 – please forgive the self-promotion!) The “sites of translation” phrase in the title has two meanings. On one hand, it refers to the role of film festivals in introducing foreign cultures to local audiences or showcasing local cultures for foreign guests. But it also refers to the translation of the established international practices of running film festivals into local cultures, or their localization.

As a Golden Horse jury member, the first thing that hits you is the number of films you have to see, and how you see them. Most film festivals have a handful of awards and a dozen or so films nominated, which the jury watch with the regular audience. The Golden Horse currently has over twenty categories, and the final jury has to watch between forty and fifty films. The sheer number makes it impossible to watch them in the regular festival screenings. Instead, we were bussed over to a small screening room in the Hsimenting District of Taipei every day. It was quite a challenging experience. I barely saw daylight for two weeks, never overcame jet lag, and admit that I struggled sometimes to keep the films separate in my mind!

Why does the Golden Horse final jury have to see so many films compared to most other festivals? In many other places, industry awards and festival awards are separate. There is no Oscars or BAFTAs film festival, for example. But, of course, the political situation in the Chinese-speaking world means there is no single film industry body equivalent to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which awards the Oscars, or the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. Rather, there are separate bodies in Hong Kong, Taipei, and Beijing. As a result, it makes sense to attach the industry awards to an international festival. This situation also explains why juries rather than organisation members are voting and making the decisions at the Golden Horse.

Furthermore, the Golden Horse has preliminary juries that cover particular specialities and make five nominations for each category. The final jury only sees the five nominated films in each category. These preliminary juries are composed of experts from across the Chinese-speaking film world, and not just from Taiwan, although—I assume partly for convenience and to minimize expense—there are quite a few Taiwanese members. The final jury, which I was on, had a similar composition, with three Taiwanese, a mainlander, a Hong Konger, and an international member (in 2017, me).

As a final local twist in the process, some members of the initial juries return and join the final jury for the final decisions. I have never come across that at other festivals. However, with so many categories, some highly specialised, having more expert input is important. The awards are decided on the actual day of the ceremony. Everyone hands over their mobile phone as they enter the room, to prevent news leaking. (People were surprised that I did not have a mobile phone with me at all!) Then, almost twenty people decide over twenty awards within a few hours. Most film festival juries work on a consensus model, but that would be impractical in the circumstances of the Golden Horse. Instead, there is brief discussion and then voting on paper. The nominee getting the least votes is eliminated and rounds of voting continue until a clear winner emerges. For those who worry about lobbying or undue influence, I cannot see how it could happen with paper votes and the tight time frame. Indeed, I noticed that impassioned advocacy for personal favourites did not always win votes at all!

At the end of the final day, jury members attend the awards ceremony in the Sun Yat-sen Hall in downtown Taipei. When I watch award ceremonies on television, I usually find them boring. But being five rows back from the stage was a very different experience. I arrived tired, understandably. But I could not help being moved by the evident shock and delight that almost vibrated from the winners, for whom this a moment they had been working towards all their lives. Suddenly, what had become quite an exhausting process became more than worthwhile.

I had to get up at five the next morning to catch my flight back to the UK, in time to teach the next day. So, I did not go to the after party. I hope no one was offended, and, in case they were, let me take this opportunity to apologise. Thank you also to everyone associated with the Golden Horse for all their hard work. I was humbled by their care and dedication, and am grateful to have gained a deeper understanding of this venerable but vital institution of the Chinese-language film world, which has been reaching out across borders for so long.

Chris Berry teaches film studies at King’s College London. His research is grounded in Chinese-language cinemas, and he is the co-editor with Lu Fei-i of the anthology on Taiwanese cinema Island on the Edge: Taiwan New Cinema and After (Hong Kong University Press). Image credit: CC by FPP

One comment

  1. Some peculiarities of the Golden Horse Film Awards are explained as the consequence of local idiosyncrasy and organisational necessity.

    But how about cultural differences? Does a predominantly Chinese/Taiwanese jury discuss its choices along different lines of argument than a predominantly Western jury? If yes, what are the differences?

    Since some members of the special juries took part in the final judgement, did their particular choices prevail ultimately most of the time? How about seniority? Did the opinions of more senior members (age, reputation, social standing) prevail most of the time?

    To watch and judge several dozens of films in a row is a challenge. Do the locals master special mental skills or tools to handle massive volumes of information satisfactorily? Might mastering the Chinese writing system provide helpful mental training for such tasks?

    I remember a lady who was responsible for the process of selecting new faculty and promoting faculty at a university in Taiwan. She had to keep in mind the state of progress of up to 40 such processes at a time. Unfortunately, I did not get the opportunity to ask her in detail how she handles this task.

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