While the Screen Africa print magazine has traditionally focused on the film industries in South Africa and Africa, we have occasionally been exposed to the industries in other continents. Joanna Sterkowicz received a gracious invitation from the Taipei Liaison Office in Johannesburg to attend the Golden Horse Awards, Asia’s Oscars, in Taiwan (Republic of China) in late November.
As someone who had only seen (and hugely admired) the films of one of Taiwan’s most famous exports, the Oscar-winning Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain; The Ice Storm; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Lust, Caution), I had no other prior knowledge of the Taiwanse industry.
Just before leaving for Taiepi I was invited to see Stan Lai’s Peach Blossom Land, a lyrical work that combines high comedy and drama to tell a touching tale resonant with Taiwanese history.
Three others in my tour group in Taipei – the director of the DC Asian Pacific American Film Festival (Tad Doyle), a Canadian film critic (Katherine Monk), and the principal librarian of the film section of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts (David Callahan) – were fairly familiar with the Taiwanese industry. One name that kept coming up in conversation was that of veteran director Hou Hsiao-Hsien, who made the classic film, A City of Sadness. Unfortunately we did not get the chance to interview him, although strangely enough we heard him sing (very beautifully) during a karaoke session at a night market hosted by the Golden Horse Awards organisers.
At a meeting with three Taiwanese filmmakers – Cheng-sheng Lin, Ta-Pu Chen and Albert Huang – and representatives from Taiwan’s biggest production company, Central Motion Pictures Corporation (CMCP), it became apparent that local filmmakers face the same issues as their South African counterparts. The biggest challenges are finance and the invasion of Hollywood films at the local box office.
Baker turned filmmaker
Lin has an interesting background – he was a baker for many years before he and his wife decided to make films. His 2001 production, Betelnut Beauty, won two awards at the Berlin International Film Festival – the Silver Bear for best director and the New Talent Award for actress Angelica Lee. Other notable Lin titles are The Moon Also Rises and Robinson’s Crusoe.
He gleefully told us that his next film, due out in March, is about a baker from nowhere who wins a big prize baking goods with Taiwanse ingredients. Lin has shot five films for CMPC, which has 200 titles in its arsenal, including the 2011 Golden Horse winner for best film, Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale.
Said the CMPC’s Enga Chang: “CMCP was government owned before it became privatised five years ago. Since then we’ve become more innovative in terms of marketing. Seediq Bale is the biggest movie of the year and has made US$25m.’
Chen expressed the view that if the CMPC was still owned by the government, Seediq Bale might not have been made.
Lin added: “CMCP gives filmmakers good opportunities. They allowed me to make my first ever film and Ang Lee to make his first film. They encourage filmmakers to make more creative films.’
Albert Huang, an independent filmmaker who is currently marketing his first feature, War Game 229, said it was impossible to make Hollywood-style films in Taiwan because the market is too small. “I only want to make films for Chinese audiences (Taiwan, China, Hong Kong and Singapore). However, the cultural flavours of these countries are very different. So my first aim is to make a film for Taiwanese people and hope it finds a wider audience. Local filmmakers want to use Hollywood techniques to make our films, but not to follow their genres.’
Lin pointed out that over the past two years Taiwanese films have had a common thread – a David and Goliath theme – as in the box office hit Cape No. 7, about a bunch of losers who form a band, and Seediq Bale, a historical story of Taiwanese aboriginals taking on Japanese colonists. “Taiwanese people want to believe that they can achieve their dreams.’
Chen is among the crop of new young directors and his first film, Pick Youth, is represented by CMPC. “As a new director my worry is resources. I’ve made my first film but will I be able to make another one?’
Lin maintained that people only look at box office figures and not at how much it costs to make a film. “Producers need to create a sustainable business model. I believe it should be a case of modest investment and modest returns. Today’s directors tend towards commercialism whereas we need directors who come up with creative and innovative ideas. Our industry doesn’t have great resources but we have a wealth of talent. Taiwan is very proud of its culture.’
During a discussion about Ang Lee prompted by Katherine Monk, I got the feeling that none of the three directors were huge fans, one even going so far as to suggest that had Lee not gone to the west, he would have been “small fry’ in Taiwan.
“We have mixed feelings about Lee,’ said Huang. “However, he is regarded as the pride of Taiwan and he cracked the international market. This makes us think that if he could do it, then so can we.’
At a lunch hosted by the GIO, deputy minister Tony Ong told us that when Taiwanese film boomed in the 1960s, the industry was producing about 200 films a year.
“Today we produce about 50 films a year as we suffer from the Hollywood invasion. Eighty percent of the films shown in Taiwan are from the Hollywood, 10% are from Japan and the remaining 10% are from Taiwan and other Asian countries.
“In previous years Taiwanese films accounted for less than 1% of total box office. 2011 has seen a big increase to 15%, thanks to huge box office for recent films such as Cape No. 7 and Seediq Bale. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon still holds the record for the highest box office of a non-English film in Taiwan.’
Director of the GIO’s Motion Pictures department Wen-ching Chu stressed that Taiwan had an excellent system for filmmakers. “We give them subsidies and help them to get loans. If the film makes more than NT$700 000 at the box office, the filmmaker will get money from the government for his next film.
“The government tries to help the industry in different ways and we’ve formed a committee to evaluate films. We treat film purely as art and as an industry. Taiwan’s signing of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) has created opportunities for joint ventures.’
Ong noted that as a result of the ECFA two Taiwanese filmmakers have secured permission to screen their films in China. “If these films generate good box office there the market for Taiwanese films will open up. Our filmmakers are very creative and idealistic and not merely concerned with commercialism. They will not change the language just to get more audiences in mainland China. Seediq Bale is not in Mandarin but in Japanese and aboriginal languages.’
The entire Taipei tour, which also included visits to the most famous sites in the city, was facilitated and hosted by GIO protocol officer, Dr Joe Wang.
By Joanna Sterkowicz