Taiwanese films on view in SA


The 2010 Taiwan Film Festival, which gets underway in Johannesburg at Ster-Kinekor Cinema Nouveau Rosebank Mall from 17 to 23 September, aims to give South African viewers some idea of the depth and breadth of Taiwan’s dynamic movie industry, ranging from the kung fu classics of the late 1960s and early 1970s, to recent box office phenomena such as Cape No. 7.

The late King Hu was a true pioneer of kung fu movies. The material for Hu’s rich cinematic tapestries was provided by the fictional wuxia heroes that roamed ancient China. Bound by a chivalrous code, the sole purpose of these kung fu “knights’ was to fight for the rights of the poor and oppressed. Hu’s work is greatly revered by modern directors and has provided inspiration for legendary films like Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers and Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (the top grossing foreign offering at the US box office in the last 10 years, taking close to R1bn).

This year’s festival showcases Hu’s Dragon Gate Inn which follows the adventures of a group of kung fu experts that do battle with secret police in their bid to protect the innocent children of a deposed army general. In a similar vein, A Touch of Zen follows the adventures of Ku, a scholar and painter, who befriends Yang, a beautiful fugitive on the run. Ku becomes caught up in Yang’s struggle to survive and finds himself up against the might of the imperial army.

Forty years after Hu’s golden age, a feature film by young newcomer Wei Te-sheng, Cape No. 7, became the highest-grossing film in the history of Taiwanese cinema, raking in R150m at the box office, beating Hollywood’s big-budget blockbusters. The rookie director’s outstanding success can partly be attributed to the fact that he broke the art-house tradition by making his work accessible to ordinary people. 

This year’s festival will also feature the work of filmmaker Tony Hung and writer-director Peter Tang. Both belong to a new generation of directors that is attempting to turn a new leaf in Taiwan’s film industry, which though having long won acclaim for its art-house films, has boasted few commercial success stories.

Hung’s Blue Brave is a pioneering work in that it uses Hakka Chinese as its main language. The film brings to light the heroic story of armed resistance against the Japanese occupation of Taiwan in 1895. On the other hand, Tang is a documentary filmmaker who has spent many years on the island of Kinmen, a small island near mainland China. Drawing on his personal experience, Tang has made a feature about the lives and love affairs of young Taiwanese soldiers stationed on Kinmen during the 1970s.

This year saw the rapprochement across the Taiwan Strait attain a new milestone when Taiwan and mainland China signed a comprehensive economic cooperation pact. The ongoing reconciliation between the two sides is a much-needed shot in the arm for Taiwan’s nascent film industry. Although remarkably resilient, the island’s movie industry is struggling in the face of stiff competition from Hollywood. Nevertheless, the fantastic box office success of films like Cape No. 7 and the gangster flick Monga (2010) has provided some bright spots in an industry which in reality relies heavily on government funding.

Fortunately, mainland China’s economic rise is expected to create an increased appetite for Chinese-language film. It is predicted that the mainland’s movie industry will eclipse that of the US within 10 years to become the world’s single-biggest market for films. The growing spending power of China’s middle class has led to an industry with box office receipts of R6.5bn. If you add Taiwan’s box office of R1bn, the combined revenue for greater China is equivalent to R 7.5bn. In the past decade, already, half of the top 10 foreign-language films at the American box office were Chinese-language productions.

Clearly, the future of Chinese-language film lies in mainland China and, if they are to survive and prosper, Taiwan-based filmmakers must begin targeting the tastes of the mainland market. Fortunately, the ongoing reconciliation across the Taiwan Strait is likely to foster greater numbers of co-productions and the blossoming of Chinese-language cinema.

The Taiwain Film Festival runs in Bloemfontein from 24 to 30 September at the Mimosa Mall, Ster-Kinekor Junction.


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