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Zhu Yu’s documentary follows four Taoist priests on a 600km walk across China. Photo: Handout

Chinese documentary director Zhu Yu defies Beijing’s boycott of Taiwan’s Golden Horse awards

  • Filmmaker decides to keep production in contention after praying to a Taoist sage and doesn’t fear any backlash, promoter says

A mainland Chinese director has vowed to ignore a Beijing boycott and keep her documentary in the running for a high-profile Taiwanese film festival because of her faith.

The documentary’s Taiwanese promoter confirmed in a statement on Wednesday that the film would continue to be registered for the Golden Horse Film Festival Awards in November.

The film, whose title loosely translates as Young People Question Taoism, is directed by Beijing Film Academy graduate Zhu Yu and is the only mainland Chinese production still registered for the festival.

It was still in the festival’s preliminary selection process, the statement said, with the finalists to be announced in October.

Mainland China to boycott Golden Horse awards in latest attempt to squeeze Taiwan

“After the boycott was announced, many famous directors were scared off and big films were under a lot of pressure to withdraw from the festival,” said the film’s Taiwanese promoter, who did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.

“We asked Zhu if she wanted to withdraw to avoid further trouble, given the sensitive climate, but she insisted that she wanted to stick to her original intention of entering the film and didn’t fear any media backlash from the mainland.”

During the trek, the Taoists pray for the souls of dead animals they come across. Photo: Handout

The promoter added that Zhu, a devout Taoist, had “no political intentions at all” in registering the film for the awards, and had no intention of promoting the film in Hong Kong or mainland China.

“There is no commercial motivation behind it whatsoever. She told me she prayed to the ancient Taoist sage Master Changchun and he told her she should continue letting the film be registered. She then realised it was her fate to carry on the same path,” he said.

“She is not purposely trying to resist China by doing so. After all, she is deeply interested in the faith and wants to bring a greater awareness of Taoism to the world.”

The documentary follows four young Taoist priests on a 600km (370 mile) pilgrimage through China as they seek the true meaning of their faith, stopping along the way to pray for the souls of dead animals.

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According to the statement, Zhu said she was looking forward to the opportunity to go to Taiwan to meet people from the island’s film industry and Taoist community.

Zhu previously told mainland media that she was “hurt” that Taoism, a native religion of China, was not valued by the central government. She was also critical of the Chinese smash-hit animated movie NeZha, which is based on the story of a Taoist folk deity.

Taoism is one of the five state-sanctioned religions on the mainland and has its origins in ancient Chinese philosophy and folk beliefs.

The documentary follows four young Taoist priests on a trek for the true meaning of their faith. Photo: Handout

Dubbed the “Chinese-language Oscars”, Taiwan’s Golden Horse awards are one of the most prestigious in Asia, with most entries coming from mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Many leading mainland directors and actors, including Zhang Yimou and Hu Ge, have confirmed to Chinese state media that they will not be taking part in the festival this year.

The mainland has also announced that its own Golden Rooster Awards, where entries must be pre-approved by the state film administration, will take place around the same time this year as the festival in Taiwan.

Hong Kong filmmakers have also been forced to take sides over the controversy. Beijing has warned them that their films cannot be screened on the mainland if they take part in the Taiwanese awards, and that any stars who attend will be put on a watch list, Taiwanese news site Line Today reported.

Several Hong Kong production companies have announced that none of their films will be entered and none of their stars will be taking part in the awards ceremony.

The China Film Administration has not formally announced what punishment any mainland directors would face if they defied the boycott, but one Hong Kong-based expert on Chinese film said the consequences could be similar to those for other Chinese directors who screened their films overseas without Beijing's approval.

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For example, director Tian Zhuangzhuang was blacklisted by Beijing for two years in the 1990s after his films were smuggled out of China and screened at overseas festivals, while Lou Ye was banned from filmmaking for five years after he submitted an entry to the 2006 Cannes Film Festival without censors’ approval.

“If it gets nominated, she’ll need a permit [from Beijing] to play it at the festival, and naturally she won’t get it,” the Hong Kong-based expert said, declining to be named. “If it doesn’t get nominated, she’ll still need a permit to show it domestically or overseas, but who knows if she’ll be denied that permit for submitting to the Golden Horse awards in the first place.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Director to defy Beijing boycott of Taiwan festival