PEKING — Imagine the following plot of high-level intrigue in picking the Oscar winners:
Members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences meet as usual to begin choosing the winners of the Academy Awards, but after a few weeks it becomes known that the award ceremonies will be delayed.
Stories begin circulating that high-ranking government officials don't like the movie that the judges have selected as the best film of the year. Newspapers begin suggesting that perhaps the method for choosing the Oscars, and the judges themselves, should be changed.
The judges threaten to quit without handing out any film awards. Finally, the winners are announced--not in the usual gala ceremonies, but in a dingy, third-floor office-building conference room, with no film directors, actors or actresses present.
Largest Film Audience
Sounds implausible? Perhaps it would be in the United States. But that's what has just happened in China, home of the world's largest film audience. (Each year, 25 billion to 30 billion movie tickets are sold in China, at prices that usually range between 15 and 30 cents).
Few people here were particularly surprised at the recent flap, because it was merely the latest in a series of wrangles over China's main film awards, called the Golden Roosters. In fact, as China's film industry becomes more professionalized, its conflicts with the Chinese regime seem to become more numerous.
As China has opened to the outside world, its film industry has increasingly found itself caught between, on the one hand, directors and performers eager to make artistic films of international quality and, on the other hand, a regime that wants movies to propagate the message and policies of the Communist Party.
The party leadership sometimes voices support for the cause of artistic freedom, but it also regularly makes clear that it expects movies to serve an ideological function.
Should 'Boost Socialism'
A few weeks ago, at a nationwide conference on feature films, Ai Zhisheng, China's minister of radio, films and television, said Chinese movies should "boost the construction of the spiritual civilization of socialism."
Furthermore, according to the government-run New China News Agency, some other unnamed "comrades" at that conference complained that Chinese film reviews, too, have recently been going astray.
Some critics review films "on the basis of their individual artistic tastes, instead of the party's principles and policies," complained the comrades. " . . . Some other critics ignore ideological content, while elevating the 'exploration' or 'originality' of forms to an inappropriate extent. We must stress the unity between healthy ideological content and perfect artistic forms."
These demands that Chinese movies serve as propaganda were made at the first nationwide film symposium of the newly created state Ministry of Radio, Films and Television.
Until early this year, China's government film bureau had been under the Ministry of Culture. In what was officially described as a bureaucratic reshuffle, the film bureau was transferred to the Ministry of Radio and Television. China's television industry has always been tightly controlled by the Communist Party's propaganda department, and film industry professionals viewed the reorganization as a blatant attempt by party leaders to exert stronger influence over film production, too.
Conflicts between the film industry and the party leadership rarely arose during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, simply because there was no functioning film industry at the time.
During that decade, Chinese film studios produced virtually no movies at all. There were no movie awards, either. Cultural leaders such as Jiang Qing, Mao Tse-tung's wife and a former screen actress, denounced prizes as a form of bourgeois individualism.
It was not until five years ago that annual film awards returned to China.
Respected Film Jury
The most prestigious of the prizes are the Golden Roosters, whose winners are picked by a jury of about 20 to 25 Chinese film directors, critics, performers and film historians. The Golden Roosters have been given out every year since 1981, which was the year of the rooster on the Chinese calendar--hence the name for the awards.
The Golden Roosters are supposed to go to films, actors and actresses, directors and cinematographers whose work has particular artistic merit. Xia Yan, 85, the screenwriter and patriarch of the modern Chinese film industry, serves as honorary chairman of the award committee.
Over the last couple of years, the Golden Rooster selection for China's best movie has taken on increasingly political overtones. Jurors are forced to choose between the movies known to be the favorites of the Communist Party propaganda hierarchy and those films favored by the film professionals.