Chinese Animation Nezha Gets on the Oscars’ Radar: For Style or Content?

Nezha (source: news.mtime.com)

On October 17, the 2020 92nd Oscar Academy Awards officially announced the preliminary list of Best Animated Features. 32 films joined the competition including popular hit series like Toy Story 4 and How to Train Your Dragon 3. Among them, Nezha and White Snake are the two Chinese animations selected.

Nezha’s attention from the Academy came as somewhat of a surprise. As we look into all the Chinese films that were once nominated for Best Foreign Language Film over the past years, it is easy to find a pattern of taste.

Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern (1991) and Hero (2003); Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine (1993); Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet (1994), Eat Drink Man Woman (1995) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2001, the only one that actually won the Oscar Award)…

As seen from the list, there is a sense of commonality among the nominations. Some have a Chinese Wuxia background, the ones filled with traditional Chinese martial arts, flying swordsmen, vengeance and loyalty. Such worlds seem novel and entirely untranslatable to western audiences, with their very deep-rooted oriental DNA. John Lee Miller, producer of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon once spoke in an interview about how Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon successfully won the approval of critical Academy judges:

“We had a sense that audiences around the world would be so enthralled by how production is done in China and the stories of China. and flying is a new thing. No matter what country you are in. We fly in our dreams. We never seen that before. It’s great story telling. And when we did our audience test, the audiences just flipped and said, when is it coming out. We wanna see it again. It was going to be in arthouses, it was going to be dubbed, not subtitled. But when it went out, it was subtitled, because everyone wanted to hear their voices in major multiplexes. It was huge,” said the producer.

However flying swordsman is not an everlasting trick. At some point, professional critics would get bored with all the dazzling moves. Renowned Chinese film critics Raymond Zhou once wrote, “The success of ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon‘ and the nomination of ‘Hero‘ gave people the illusion that the costume martial arts would successfully sweep across the world from then on. After that, films from China all adopted the same strategy. Examples include, ‘Warriors of Heaven and Earth‘, ‘House of Flying Daggers‘, ‘Curse of the Golden Flower‘, ‘The Night Banquet‘. Flying is enjoyable to see for the first time. There is hardly any surprise left for the second time.”

Apart from Wuxia, other favored genres are those featuring big production teams and mostly heavy themes. Take Raise the Red Lantern (1991) and Farewell My Concubine (1993) for example. Both were adapted with high artistic value from clever but not exactly hit novels. The latter, Farewell my Concubine, was selected by Time magazine in 2015 as one of the 100 immortal films in history. Both took place in the times of a changing China, where the collisions of the old society and the new brought along the tragic destinies of the characters, similar to the winners from other countries such as A Separation (2011) from Iran and Capernaum (2018) from Lebanon.

In that sense, Nezha’s entry into the preliminary list of Oscar nominations was an exception, but also a promising sign of new breakthroughs in the Chinese film industry. It might signify a change in the judges’ taste. Nezha was adapted from an ancient Taoist classic The Investiture of the Gods. Putting aside a background story that’s so well-organized and so rich, the whole Nezha universe could be expected to expand like a western Harry Potter or Lord of Rings type of series, with the upcoming sequel already being anticipated in 2020. Instead of heavy and realistic, the film is young, vivid and downright inspiring.

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Just as film critic Raymond Zhou posted on Chinese twitter-like Weibo, “I have watched all the best Oscar-winning foreign language films (the best international films as they call it now) including all the award winners and finalists. My understanding is that the judges prefer traditional narrative stories and art films with a nationalistic style. Originally I thought they would choose My People, My Country to participate in the selection of the best international film this year. Nezha is totally unexpected, apparently the judges are taking different approaches this year.” It should be noted that My People, My Country is a nationalistic film that debuted during the 2019 national holiday.