This year’s Oscar contenders from China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan are the perfect lens into the places they’re from

A screenshot from Huang Hui-chen’s “Small Talk”
A screenshot from Huang Hui-chen’s “Small Talk”
Image: YouTube/Visual Communications
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The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recently announced the complete list of country submissions for the Best Foreign Language Film category for the 2018 Oscars. Titles garnering hype include Foxtrot, an Israeli film about an IDF soldier’s grieving parentsBPM: Beats Per Minute, a depiction of France’s AIDS crisis in the early 90s; and In the Fade, a German drama about a woman’s search for justice against neo-Nazi terrorists.

By comparison, the nominations coming from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China have not attracted much buzz internationally, but each region’s submission touches on issues in that capture the ambitions, desires, and insecurities of its people. Taken as a trio, they provide the perfect glimpse into three culturally distinct, but closely intertwined, places.

Small Talk

: Taiwan’s LGBT movement

Shot over a nearly 20-year period, Small Talk is a documentary on filmmaker Huang Hui-chen’s attempts to connect with her emotionally distant mother Anu. While working as a Taoist priestess in Taipei, Anu maintained many romances with women in an era when homosexuality was taboo. While she never attempted to hide her sexuality, she also never discussed it with her daughter. Huang tries to break her mother’s silence on her past, coaxing her through the film’s titular chit-chat.

Critics describe Small Talk as a portrait of a relationship rather than a politically charged argument about homosexuality in Taiwan. “The documentary doesn’t aim to criticize the country’s current socio-political climate or use Anu’s accounts to generalize its human rights issues. Quite the contrary: the film charms with its ability to stay compelling and critical by merely centering on one family, whose struggles feel more realistic and salient than those of a whole nation,” writes Point of View Magazine.

But the film also comes as Taiwan’s LGBT movement reaches its apex. Small Talk hit theaters in Taiwan weeks before the island’s top court declared a civil code barring same-sex marriage unconstitutional—paving the way for its eventual legalization. That landmark decision placed Taiwan well ahead of its peers in Asia on gay rights, including Australia and Hong Kong.

Mad World

: Hong Kong’s social ills, packed into 100 minutes

The first feature film by director Wong Chun, Mad World tells the story of Tung, a finance industry professional whose struggle with bipolar disorder lands him in a psychiatric ward. Upon release, Tung moves in with his absentee father, an impoverished truck driver. Sharing one of Hong Kong’s tiny, often dangerous, sub-divided apartments—as featured on the film’s promotional posters—the two must look after one another as Tung comes to terms with the the impact of his illness on his career and marriage, as well as his role in the death of his mother, who was also mentally ill.

In its initial review of the film, the South China Morning Post described Mad World as a “bid to shed light on every conceivable challenge of Hong Kong urban living in the film’s 100-minute runtime,” from poverty to housing and the stresses faced by those in the finance industry. Hong Kong’s sub-divided flats house many impoverished and marginalized people, including many with mental illness, and the cramped spaces only serve to compound their illness. Meanwhile, mental health patients in Hong Kong remain stigmatized and underserved. Wait times to visit a psychiatrist in a public hospital can last up to three years. The Economist Intelligence Unit scored Hong Kong behind Singapore, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan—its closest peers in Asia—in its Asia-Pacific Mental Health Integration Index (pdf) last year.

In order to depict the subject matter realistically, Wong and Chan conducted interviews with mental illness patients and their families prior to shooting. “My ultimate hope is that by showing mental illness in this way through the film, that it can help pull us all a little closer to the understanding of mental illness,” Wong said in an interview. Domestic audiences have responded positively to Mad World—the film grossed HK$16.8 million (US$2.1 million) during its first two months in theaters, compared with its budget of HK$2 million (US$256,000)

Wolf Warrior 2

: China’s propaganda smash

While Taiwan and Hong Kong’s submissions are quiet independent films, Wolf Warrior 2 is an action blockbuster that projects Beijing’s idealized vision of China on the world stage, as well as the growing nationalist sentiment among its citizens.

The film tells the story of Leng Feng, a Rambo-esque former member of the Chinese Special Forces who leaves China for an unnamed African country after being discharged from the army. There, he winds up fighting to save overseas Chinese workers and locals stuck in a civil war. There’s also a subplot involving a fictitious disease known as “Lamanla,” and a romance between Leng and Rachel Smith, a dual US-Chinese citizen who worked with a team of Chinese doctors to develop the vaccine for the disease.

Of course, what appears as a generic action film on the surface is really a subversion of the white savior Hollywood trope, with Chinese characteristics. Its theatrical release came days before China opened its first-ever overseas military base in Djibouti, which also coincided with the 90th anniversary of the formation of the People’s Liberation Army.

The film’s overt politics will likely prevent it from receiving the nomination, but reviews suggest that there’s value in considering what a Hollywood-style action film would look like when the geopolitical context is flipped. Noel Murray of the Los Angeles Times writes, “There’s something bracing about its patriotic fervor, which asserts that the Chinese will act in the best interests of the world’s downtrodden, while the rest of the world just exploits them. It’s instructive to recognize the presumptions we’re used to finding in American blockbusters, but with the heroes and villains reversed.”

Chinese moviegoers have flocked to Wolf Warrior 2. The film has raked in 5.6 billion yuan ($824 million) to date at China’s box office (link in Chinese), making it the highest-grossing film ever in the country. Explosions and car chases certainly help draw viewers, but there is also a palpable sense of increasing nationalism (paywall) among Chinese citizens themselves. In Africa and elsewhere, China has asserted itself more aggressively, at times championing itself as a bastion of globalization particularly at a time when America’s leadership role is in question. Meanwhile, many Chinese individuals, whether online or in real life, are standing up for China’s interests in the face of criticism from abroad. After years of watching white men save the world, Wolf Warrior 2 gives Chinese audiences a hero of its own.