Taiwanese cinema is undergoing a resurgence, both at awards ceremonies and at the box office.
Media outlets hailed the recent edition of the prestigious Golden Horse Awards in November a triumphant comeback for Taiwanese film, after The Great Buddha+ and The Bold, The Corrupt And The Beautiful swept prizes in most of the major categories.
This was on the heels of a relatively dry spell at the awards in recent years.
China’s The Summer Is Gone was 2016’s Best Feature Film; the Chinese- French co-production Blind Massage had the winning touch in 2014; Singapore’s Ilo Ilo triumphed in 2013; and China’s Beijing Blues won in 2012.
While 2015’s best picture, The Assassin, was directed by Taiwanese auteur Hou Hsiao-hsien, it was a multinational work with Chinese and French involvement.
The last time a wholly Taiwanese work was named Best Film was in 2011, when Wei Te-sheng’s period epic Seediq Bale won .
As Golden Horse festival chairman Wen Tien-hsiang said at a recent press conference in Taipei: “Taiwanese cinema put up a very good fight this year, whether in terms of being stylistically unique, topical or for showcasing great individual talents.”
Online Taiwanese film publication Funscreen also wrote: “For anyone who has been following Taiwan cinema at all, this has been an amazing year for the industry.”
The Great Buddha+, a dark comedy directed by Huang Hsinyao, is about two guys who stumble upon sexually compromising videos of their boss. It won five Golden Horse Awards, including for Best New Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Cinematography.
The Bold, The Corrupt And The Beautiful, directed by Yang Ya-che, is set in 1980s Taiwan and tells the story of the lengths a matriarch goes to in order to place her family in a position of power. The film won four prizes, including for Best Feature Film, the biggest award of the night.
Last September, the film also took home the Netpac (Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema) Award at the Toronto International Film Festival for Best Asian Film.
Of course, Taiwanese films have regularly gotten both critics and audiences to sit up and take notice, not just on home ground, but across Asia as well.
Long-time film buffs will be familiar with arthouse directors such as Hou and Edward Yang, whose films, including A City Of Sadness (1989) and A Brighter Summer Day (1991), were feted on the film festival circuit during the 1980s and early 1990s.
The current resurgence is not just about critical recognition, though, but also popular adoration.
Taiwanese cinema became a new commercial force to be reckoned with after Wei, director of Seediq Bale, released romantic musical Cape No. 7 in 2008. The film, which weaves together the story of a nohope amateur music band in the seaside town of Hengchun with a romance between a Japanese teacher and a Taiwanese woman that took place 60 years ago, grossed NT$530 million, making it the highest-grossing local film in Taiwan.
That was only the start of a wave of critically and commercially successful Taiwanese films to come, many of which went on to perform well across many Asian markets, never mind that not all of them are Chinese-speaking.
Among the wide range of genres of these films, heartfelt youth dramas are proving to be among the most popular.
Nostalgic school-time movies You’re The Apple Of My Eye (2011) and Our Times (2015) both scored big at the global box office, earning US$24.5 million and US$81.5 million, respectively.
The Straits Times reported in November 2015 that audiences here loved Our Times so much that many viewers went for repeat viewings. The film is Singapore’s highest- grossing Taiwanese film of all time, earning more than $3.5 million at the box office here.
Given the immense success of such films in the region, it is no surprise that yet another Taiwanese youth drama, complete with school uniforms and a retro setting, was released in December.
Take Me To The Moon follows a group of high-school students who form a band in 1997. It even stars Our Times’ Vivian Sung in the lead as a girl who harbours pop star dreams.
The movie is co-produced by Singapore-headquartered firm mm2 Entertainment – its third investment in a Taiwanese film after Kiasu (2014) and Turn Around (2017).
Mr Ng Say Yong, chief content officer of mm2, admits that the Taiwanese school theme of the new film follows a recognisable formula that has worked well in the past.
It is probably also the reason the film has been pre-sold to key Asian territories such as China, Hong Kong and South Korea, he adds.
Nanyang Technological University assistant professor Liew Kai Khiun, who has research interests in pop culture, believes recent Taiwanese films succeed because they often hark back to simpler times.
He says: “Taiwanese films have found a commercial niche in Asian cinema in nostalgia-oriented genres that flash back to the seemingly timeless days of youth.”
Human resource manager Christy Shen, 33, who has seen Our Times “at least five times”, agrees. She says: “There is something very innocent and sweet about many Taiwanese films. The ones set in schools always remind me of my own school days.”
There are additional linguistic and cultural factors which make them appealing to Chinese-speaking audiences outside Taiwan – even when the films are strongly rooted in Taiwanese society.
As The Chinese University Of Hong Kong professor Lim Song Hwee says: “Singaporeans typically find in Taiwan cinema linguistic expressions – in Mandarin, Hokkien or Hakka – that they have lost or whose level they cannot attain, settings that are at once strange and familiar, or characters whose warmth, innocence and hospitality embody cultural values or ideals that they find attractive.”
The tricky thing for a commercial offering such as Take Me To The Moon is that it has to be familiar enough to draw in viewers – and yet not overly so.
Our Times fan Ms Shen says she saw the film and was pleased to know that it was “not a sad imitation” of her favourite movies.
“The reason so many people loved You’re The Apple Of My Eye and Our Times is because they were so fresh and fun. Take Me To The Moon felt familiar, but it continued to surprise me, the way the other two Taiwanese films did.”
FIVE TAIWAN FILMS TO WATCH
1. Monga (2010)
Director: Doze Niu
Stars: Ethan Juan, Mark Chao, Rhydian Vaughan
What: Young And Dangerous (1996) is now considered a classic Hong Kong gangster film and Monga could well be its Taiwanese equivalent.
The story, about a young student (Chao) who becomes the apprentice of a gangster’s son, is not entirely original, but audiences lapped up the cultural specificity of the film. The title Monga refers to an old district in Taipei and the characters here speak the way a typical Taiwanese gangster would.
With NT$260 million earned at the domestic box office, it is at No. 11 on the list of highest-grossing Taiwanese films.
2. You’re The Apple Of My Eye (2011)
Director: Giddens Ko
Stars: Michelle Chen, Kai Ko
What: This movie turned unknown actor Kai Ko into an instant heart-throb as girls across Asia fell in love with his boyish charm in the role of high-school student Ko Ching-teng.
Based on director Giddens Ko’s semi-autobiographical book of the same name, the story tells of how prankster Ching-teng eventually becomes a successful writer, thanks to his blossoming romance with honours student Shen Chia-yi (Chen).
Besides breaking box-office records in Taiwan, it also made its mark in the region. In Hong Kong, it is the highest-grossing Taiwanese film of all time, and in Singapore, it was the highest-grossing Asian film for 2011.
3. Warriors Of The Rainbow: Seediq Bale (2011)
Director: Wei Te-sheng
Stars: Nolay Piho, Yuki Daki, Umin Boya
What: With more than NT$472 million in domestic ticket sales, Seediq Bale is No. 2 on the list of top-grossing Taiwanese films, behind only Cape No. 7, Wei’s first film.
The style, tone and subject matter of this epic are entirely different from his debut feature, but Taiwanese audiences flocked to see it as it told an inspiring, but little-known story from their history – about the aboriginal Seediq tribe and how it fought against colonial Japanese forces during the 1930s.
There was a sense of authenticity to the film as Wei cast indigenous actors in the major roles.
4. Beyond Beauty: Taiwan From Above (2013)
Director: Chi Po-lin
What: This documentary features lush Taiwanese landscapes shot entirely through aerial photography and highlights the need for environmental reforms.
Despite its niche appeal, the film beat the odds to have the biggest opening weekend for a documentary in Taiwan. It also won Best Documentary at the Golden Horse Awards.
Director Chi was working on a sequel, but never got to finish it as he died in a helicopter crash in June while shooting footage for the new film.
5. Our Times (2015)
Director: Frankie Chen
Stars: Vivian Sung, Darren Wang
What: Many people called this the female version of You’re The Apple Of My Eye as it is another high-school romance tale, but from the perspective of a girl. Set in the 1990s, the film hit all the right notes for nostalgic audiences with its references to iconic pop songs and films from the time.
The surprise cameo by actor Jerry Yan – once the heart-throb of every Chinese-language television drama fan in the early 2000s – was the perfect move to get viewers of a certain age squealing.
Singaporeans loved the film as it became the highest-grossing Taiwan film of all time here, with more than $3.5 million earned.