Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival survived the pandemic unscathed. None of its editions took an online or hybrid form. However, another issue thoroughly changed the festival. Since 2019, China Film Administration has continued to boycott Golden Horse and suspend PRC productions and filmmakers from participating in the festival and the award ceremony1. In 2018, four out of five films nominated for the Best Feature Film were representing the PRC, including the winning Daxiang xidi er zuo (An Elephant Sitting Still, Hu Bo, 2018). Chinese films dominated the line-up with twelve awards in total. At this year’s Golden Horse Film Awards PRC was represented only by two independent titles – documentary film Chenmo huxi (Silence in the Dust, Li Wei) and short film Dang wo wang xiang ni de shihou (Will You Look At Me, Huang Shuli) – in categories that are usually out of the main spotlight. Directors Huang Shuli and Li Wei were given a 4-day visa entry into Taiwan only to attend the ceremony. The two submitted their films on their own, accepting that they will be “cancelled” from the PRC film industry and will have difficulty in finding work within the system in the future even though the domestic media will report and praise their films if they win an award at the Golden Horse. This year, Hong Kong filmmakers were also strongly discouraged to attend, which reflects the gradual placement of the Hong Kong film industry under the jurisdiction of PRC film censorship law2

My presence at Golden Horse this year was also somewhat influenced by the boycott and mutual negative sentiments on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. Midway through the festival, I was asked to represent a project as part of the Golden Horse Work-in-Progress sessions, because neither the film director nor the producer – both PRC citizens – were issued a visa to enter Taiwan. However, they did not want to miss the chance to show the film to the professionals attending Golden Horse Film Promotion Project and Work-in-Progress. Therefore, I spent most of the latter part of the festival in industry meetings, which also gave me another outlook on the festival. My audience experience remained fragmentary – but isn’t it always? Chacun son festival. 

Many new Hong Kong projects participated in the Film Promotion Project and the Work-in-Progress, which marks Taiwan as a potential outpost of Hong Kong industry in partial exile. Surprisingly, against the suggestion of the China Film Administration, the Hong Kong presence also dominated this year’s Golden Horse Awards. The filmmakers reimagined their beloved city, strategically avoiding any mention of political upheavals that, eventually, unavoidably influenced the reception of recent Hong Kong films. In her debut feature, Dang fo laan saan (A Light Never Goes Out), Sorbonne graduate Anastasia Tsang romanticises local Hong Kong culture and its brightest landmark – the neon signs. Following changes in urban planning regulations, they are gradually taken down by the police. Centring on the story of a widow of one of the neon sign makers, A Light Never Goes Out pays tribute to the dying profession as well as to various aspects of local culture targeted by PRC authorities in pursuit of standardisation and unification. Sylvia Chang – a Taiwanese actress working in the Hong Kong film industry since the 1980s – was awarded for her performance in the main role. In her acceptance speech she likened neon lights being replaced by LED to the potential existential threat that cinema faces on account of small screens. In A Light Never Goes Out the character of the sign maker’s young apprentice represents some hope for the future and survival of craftsmanship, but the film does not bring any alternatives. The future looks bleak in comparison to the neon-lit colourful past. It is a sentiment shared in many recent independent Hong Kong genre films such as the series The Way We Dance (Adam Wong, 2013), which is co-written by A Light Never Goes Out producer Saville Chan. It seems the filmmakers hope to resonate with young Chinese-speaking cinema audiences as well as the festival circuit environment making the poster for A Light Never Goes Out in striking resemblance to the one for Bi Gan’s 2018 arthouse hit Diqiu zuihou de yewan (Long Day’s Journey into Night). In 2022, Hong Kong box office revenue for local films was very high3, which does indicate that, against all odds, a light never goes out.

The Narrow Road

Whereas A Light Never Goes Out’s romanticised image with limited social critique, Dzaak lou mei tsan (The Narrow Road, Lam Sum) offers in-depth insight into the everyday problems of young working-class Hong Kongers. Set during the first months of Covid lockdown, the realist drama revolves around 28-year-old Chak (Louis Cheung), who has just established a small cleaning company. However, the closing down of shops, offices and gyms sharply decreases the number of potential clients. Unable to run the business solely on his own, he hires a young single mother, Candy (Angela Yuen). Living on a tight budget with no money for a babysitter, she soon starts to show up to work with her preschool daughter. Each cleaning shift uncovers pieces of contemporary Hong Kong reality and completes portraits of Chak and Candy as representatives of the generation severely affected by economic recession. Director Lam Sum and writer Chung Fean strike a balance between the local and the global. They link the fate of working-class young adults beyond the national borders, but the shadow of Hong Kong’s 2019-2020 anti-extradition law protests looms over the story even though it goes unmarked in the film itself. In The Narrow Road, the filmmakers avoid the trap of nostalgia after the British colonial period, since life in Hong Kong had always been hard for the working class. Instead, a sense of consistency and continuity permeate The Narrow Road, which shows the quiet dignity, the spirit of survival and creative adaptation that Hong Kongers had developed throughout the decades of foreign rule and unrestrained capitalism. 

This attitude differentiates The Narrow Road from Ji chi (Limbo, Cheang Pou-soi, 2021), which won in five categories at this year’s Golden Horse Awards. In addition to the awards for adapted screenplay, cinematography, art direction and visual effect, Limbo also won Audience Choice awards. Directed by Cheang Pou-soi, the 2021 Berlinale-premiered film noir delves into the lowest strata of Hong Kong society with a highly generic story of two police detectives – older cynic and younger idealist – working on the case of multiple femicide. With its high contrast B&W photography and lavish visual effects, Limbo belongs to a Hong Kong cinema from two decades ago with its blunt portrayal of violence against women, aestheticization of the city’s underbelly, and shallow demonisation of a villain that for some reason has to be Japanese. The trauma left after Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during the Second World War is a handy excuse for othering Japanese characters but rendering female characters as mere body parts suppliers reduces Limbo to blunt exploitation.  


The trend of exploitation is continued in Geylang (Boi Kwong) which dazzles with high contrast neon-colour photography and rampant violence. The heist film, set in Singapore’s eponymous red-light district, features a group of characters whose interests clash during one night on the town. A general practitioner steals a sex worker’s kidney to save his dying daughter, while a social worker married to an influential politician tries to seize a compromising video and avoid blackmail, and finally, a local pimp accidentally kills a loan shark and flees to Indonesia. These three plots are interwoven with multiple smaller intrigues, the suspense imploding under the weight of narrative complexity. However, one episodic character – a politician preparing for election in Singapore – is attention grabbing due to the peculiar way in which he is introduced. His face is never shown but his presence is marked by an impeccable English accent. In dialogue heavy scenes between the politician and his wife the editing feels somewhat odd because there is no shot-reverse shot. Therefore, the man exists only as a voice, a strangely incorporeal character. The language-based violence reminded me of one scene in Royston Tan’s Singaporean coming-of-age film 15 (2003) in which the main characters are bullied by clean-cut schoolmates for speaking Singlish instead of British English. The disturbing voice-without-face effect also made me think of a menacing voice-over monologue at the end of Edward Yang’s Majiang (Mahjong, 1996) in which Markus (Nick Erickson) – a British expat living in Taipei – expresses his gruesome neo-colonial attitude. Edward Yang’s legacy is still underrated in Chinese-language cinemas, but long-awaited restorations of his 1990s works encourage the audience to revisit them and rethink the automatic labelling of him as “the unquestionable master of New Taiwan Cinema”. The film that became the most popular, according to post-screening audience votes, was the restored version of Yang’s Duli shidai (A Confucian Confusion, 1994), a mere prelude to the highly anticipated full retrospective due in 2023, following years of legal issues and copyright problems that blocked the restoration and rerelease of both A Confucian Confusion and Mahjong

A Confucian Confusion was not the only film to prove that the restored classics section at Golden Horse includes underrated gems of Chinese-language-cinemas. After winning the Best Director award last year for Fa gor pui ling (Drifting Petals, Clara Law, 2021), Law returned to Taipei to conduct the fieldwork for her next feature film and to attend the world premiere of the restoration of her 1985 debut Ngoi gwok dik yut leung yun se? (They Say the Moon Is Fuller Here) accompanied by her short film, Chek dei (Red Earth, 2010). Seeing the two works on the big screen followed by a discussion with Law and screenwriter Eddie Fong (her partner in private and professional life) is my best memory from the festival. 

Red Earth

Produced by the Hong Kong Film Critics Society, Red Earth is one of the rare examples of Chinese-language experimental science fiction narrative films long before the China Film Administration decided to promote the development of the sci-fi film sector4, which resulted in many indie films trying to fit the mould with small budgets but great creativity, such as Wang Xide’s Ban ge xiao ye qu (Vagrant Bebop) or Kong Dashan’s Yuzhou tansuo bianjibu (Journey to the West). 

Red Earth revolves around a man on a business trip waiting for a woman in a hotel room so that they can watch the sunset together, until he realises the end of the world is approaching. Consisting of a series of photographs accompanied by voice over, Red Earth echoes Chris Marker’s La Jetée. The short film resonated with me not only due to my enchantment with the specific raw beauty of early digital camera footage, but also because it was set in a Hyatt Hotel in Hong Kong in 2010 and I was placed by Golden Horse guest department in Taipei’s Hyatt (an unusual experience for a freelancer always travelling on a budget.) This spatial link across time provided a sense of continuity, but the elements of reality presented in Red Earth – digital camera, fashion, main character’s profession reflecting pre-pandemic neoliberalism – made me realise how distant 2010 and its zeitgeist feel from the present-day perspective. 

They Say the Moon Is Fuller Here (Clara Law, 1985) felt much more familiar, maybe due to the revival of Cold War dynamics in recent years. Set in one of the UK’s leading universities, the film follows a love story between two star-crossed lovers – a Hong Kong woman and a PRC man. Clara Law directs and acts in the role of Lau Ling who is preparing her graduation work – a dance performance based on the tragic love story and Chinese legend of Liang Shanbo yu Zhu Yingtai (The Butterfly Lovers). However, she is not happy with the two British classmates she works with. One day, she sees Han Wah dancing in an empty studio in the evening and, impressed by his skills, asks if he could help her train the dancers. In the scene, the camera frames Han Wah’s body with admiration, expressing unrestrained female desire. The psychological portrayal of the two main characters in They Say the Moon Is Fuller Here is rich with details that effortlessly ground the story in mid-1980s geopolitics and social reality in the UK, Hong Kong and China. During the Cultural Revolution, Han Wah might have been a member of one of the art troupes in the People’s Liberation Army. After the outset of reforms and opening up, some of these privileged youths were sponsored by the Chinese Communist Party to study overseas and bring a precious know-how back to the country. Han Wah is burdened by his past as well as his clearly arranged future, unable to let go of a sense of responsibility and sacrifice for the nation. Lau Ling, on the other hand, is disturbed by the power dynamic between China and the UK, and the Western as well as the Chinese stereotypes of Asian womanhood. She is gradually estranged from her aunt who slips into these stereotypes all too comfortably. In They Say the Moon Is Fuller Here, Clara Law discusses gender, ethnicity, patriotism and identity in a very straightforward and personal way, a strong counterbalance to the male-dominated Chinese-language cinema of the 1980s. 


More and more contemporary titles also centre on exploring female desire. Jeong-sun (Jeong Ji-hye) and Ajoomma (He Shuming) stood out with their complex portrayals of middle-aged women falling in love. Jeong Ji-hye’s South Korean debut, Jeong-sun, focuses on the eponymous factory worker who secretly starts dating a colleague. However, she soon experiences the extreme agism and uneven expectations towards men and women in Korean society. He Shuming’s Ajoomma, a Singaporean-South Korean co-production, takes on a much lighter tone. It follows a Singaporean housewife on a group tour in South Korea, visiting the locations of her favourite K-drama during the Lunar New Year. The trip takes an unexpected turn when the tour bus accidentally drives off without her on board. Although the two films – a social drama and holiday-season comedy respectively – differ in approach, in both Jeong-sun and Ajoomma, the act of driving a car allows the main characters to take control over their lives, to welcome changes and to deal with difficult transitions such as inevitable separation from their children. He Shuming skilfully uses genre conventions to talk about various contemporary cultural phenomena. Nominated in six categories, Ajoomma is one of the films that perfectly balance social commentary and entertainment. 

This year, for the first time, I attended the Golden Horse Awards ceremony, which over the decades has garnered a cult status as prime time family entertainment on television in Chinese-speaking homes. Commonly called the “Chinese Oscars”, the first ceremony took place on 31 October 1962 at the Kuo Kuang Cinema in Taipei. This year, the event was held in Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall. All the rituals, such as presenters’ jokes, winners’ acceptance speeches and three-minute commercial breaks every 30 minutes, projected a sense of community and togetherness-in-time. When the In Memoriam finished, many people in the audience were in tears – including me, even though I only knew several of the names mentioned. 

In late November 2022, with protests on the streets of Chinese cities, which no one had expected, the question that weighed over the Golden Horse ceremony was about the uncertain future of Chinese-language cinemas. This year’s programme was quite bleak. Besides the titles nominated for Golden Horse Awards, the Chinese-language titles were largely represented by short films that dominated the Chinese Global Vision section. The abundance of short forms might be a consequence of the pandemic-related bottleneck effect in high-cost film production, but also interestingly corresponds with the recent trend at international film festivals where PRC short films feature in the competition sections and often win main awards5. In the last five years Cannes Film Festival has given Palme D’Or in the short film category to Xiao cheng er yue (A Gentle Night, Qiu Yang, 2017), Haibian shengqi yi zuo xuanya (The Water Murmurs, Story Chen), and Special Distinction to Yanbian shaonian (On the Border, Wei Shujun, 2018). This year another short film, Dang wo wang xiang ni de shi hou (Will You Look At Me, Shuli Huang) was awarded the Queer Palm and moved on to win the Golden Horse Award for Best Documentary Short Film. 

After participating in the industry events, I am surprisingly optimistic about the future of Chinese-language cinemas. Projects taking part in 2022 FPP and WiP – such as Tin ci nan (A Cantopop Lyricist to-be, Norris Wong) exploring girlhood and pop culture in Hong Kong, and Echao (Malice, Lim Lungyin) about three men hunting for giant swordfish on the east coast of Taiwan – make me look forward to seeing some of them on the big screen at next year’s Golden Horse.

Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival
2 – 20 November 2022
Festival Website: https://www.goldenhorse.org.tw/


About The Author

Maja Korbecka is a PhD candidate at the Freie Universität Berlin. Her research focuses include Sinophone cinemas, film festival studies and Southeast Asian cinemas. She is also interested in film curatorship and different forms of film criticism such as audiovisual essays and podcasts.

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