Tuesday, August 04, 2009

TECO could still fund Melbourne Film Festival [UPDATED]

By Jenny W. Hsu and J. Michael Cole

The Taipei Economic and Relations Office (TECO) in Australia said yesterday it had proposed to the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) that it resume its status as a “cultural partner” after sponsorship was annulled when a Taiwanese film was withdrawn by its Hong Kong production company last month. TECO’s Information Division Director Jerry Chuang (莊正安) told the Taipei Times in a telephone interview that his office had made the pitch to the organizer and was waiting for an answer.

Chuang said the sponsorship became void when feature film Miao Miao was pulled, but when it was pointed out that Taiwan still had two short films — Joyce Agape and The Pursuit of What Was —in the event, TECO decided the conditions of the sponsorship hadn’t changed.

“We are eager to resume our sponsorship to show our full support for the festival,” Chuang said.

The proposal came amid a China-initiated boycott of the festival surrounding the presentation of a documentary on the life of World Uighur Congress president Rebiya Kadeer and an Agence France-Presse (AFP) report on Saturday that said: “All Chinese-language films were withdrawn from the festival in protest, and Hong Kong and Taipei’s trade offices both pulled their sponsorship.”

Contacted by the Taipei Times on Monday for comment before the resumption of sponsorship idea had been floated, festival spokeswoman Louise Heseltine said: “We never said the Taiwan Trade Office withdrew funding.”

“The festival receives funding from both the Hong Kong Trade Office and TECO based on the festival screening films from those regions,” Heseltine said.

However, “if there are no Hong Kong or Taiwanese films screening at the festival, then the sponsorship agreement becomes void,” said Heseltine, who once lived in Taiwan.

Last week the festival announced that Miao Miao, by Taiwanese director Cheng Hsiao-tse (程孝澤), was among the seven Chinese-language films pulling out of the festival. The movie was produced by Wong Kar-Wai (王家衛), Jacky Pang (彭綺華) and Stanley Kwan Kam-pang (關錦鵬). Its distributors in Taiwan and Hong Kong are Golden Scene and Warner Bros International respectively. The international distributor is the Netherlands-based Fortissimo Films, which has a branch office in Hong Kong.

In an e-mail to the Taipei Times yesterday, Courtney Noble, director of Festivals and Markets at Fortissimo Films in Amsterdam, wrote: “We received a formal request from the producer/owners of the film [Miao Miao] that it be pulled. As we have a contractual obligation with them and all of our producers to follow their instructions, we proceeded to do so.”

“The Melbourne Festival with whom our company has a longstanding relationship was extremely gracious and cooperative in immediately agreeing to this request,” Noble said.

This article can be accessed on the Taipei Times Web site.

During my conversations with Ms Heseltine, she made it clear that TECO had not “withdrawn” its funding for the festival, but rather that as Taiwan would not be presenting any movies at the MIFF, agreements on financial contributions would be “void.” The key words here are “withdrawn” and “void,” are the first implies proactive and willful removal, while the latter is merely the result, however unfortunate, of abidance to a contract. “Withdrawal” could also have political undertones (e.g., Taiwan siding with Beijing on the Kadeer issue), while “void” does not have political connotations. The fact that TECO has sought to resume sponsorship, based on the fact that two shorts by Taiwanese are still participating at the festival, supports this argument.

What I also learned from my conversation with Fortissimo Film in the Netherlands is that the decision to respect contractual agreements with the producers and owners of the movie
Miao Miao appears to have been made at company headquarters in Amsterdam rather than at the regional office in Hong Kong (which did not reply to my requests for comment). Ms Noble was noncommittal on the possibility of there being a rift between Amsterdam and Hong Kong on the removal of the film, and would not elaborate on whether headquarters disagreed with the turn of events.

I find it interesting that this would occur merely one week after the Government Information Office (GIO) announced that starting this month, Taiwan and China would be allowed to cooperate on TV production. In an editorial I produced on the GIO’s announcement, I wrote, perhaps presciently, given last week’s events: “The risk is that through a process of filtering, Taiwanese productions that refuse to have their artistic integrity muzzled will be unable to make it in the Chinese market, while those that do will reap the financial benefits.”
Miao Miao is a clear example of the toxicity of cooperation with China in the artistic field, which beyond what I wrote in the editorial, extends to markets abroad. The moment a single dollar is invested by China in a movie production (and in future, this could also apply to literature and other forms of entertainment), Taiwanese artists will be held hostage to Chinese censorship and see their freedom of expression curtailed. Notwithstanding the realities of the markets and the difficulties Taiwanese producers are facing, it might not be a bad idea if they explored alternatives to cooperation in the arts, such as Japan, Australia, South Korea and the US. Of course, linguistic and cultural similarities make China a natural choice for cooperation, but when this comes at a cost of freedom of expression, any artist who is true to his calling should refuse to be muzzled.

It is no small irony that the producers who were ostensibly behind the decision to withdraw
Miao Miao — Wong Kar-Wai, Jacky Pang and Stanley Kwan Kam-pang — all became famous thanks to the openness of the creative industry they now appear to have turned their backs on. Wong (dir. 2046, My Blueberry Nights), Pang (prod. Eros, 2046, My Blueberry Nights) and Kwan (dir. Rouge), seem to be following in the footsteps of Chinese director Zhang Yimou (張藝謀, Hero, House of Flying Daggers, To Live) in turning their backs on Western liberalism after becoming famous (and rich) because of it. As we know, Zhang is now the Chinese Communist Party’s unofficial state propagandist, having orchestrated the Beijing opening ceremonies and being in charge of the celebrations surrounding the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China on Oct. 1. A worrying difference between Zhang and the three producers/directors named above is that while Zhang is clearly identified with China, Wong, Pang and Kwan are all from the Hong Kong film industry. Their decision on Miao Miao could be the result of two things: either Chinese ideology is making inroads in Hong Kong and is starting to undermine the more liberal ideological system that prevailed there, even after retrocession in 1997; or their own movie studios are under the financial control of elements in China proper, which then raises the possibility that they were pressured into making that decision. I have made inquiries in certain channels in Hong Kong to determine which of the three had a say in the decision, and what may have prompted them to make that choice. I don’t know if any answers are forthcoming.

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