Taiwan has a population of 23 million — just a little more than Australia. When it comes to making movies, it has similar dilemmas to Australia — a small home market and a high cost structure. Taiwan, however, has found a way around this.
Take, for example, Life of Pi, winner of four Academy awards. It was made on location almost entirely in the central Taiwan city of Taichung. The director, Ang Lee, is one of Taiwan’s most famous sons. His personal relationship with Taichung mayor Jason Hu, one of Taiwan’s most influential politicians, helped secure a $9 million contribution from the city towards the cost of making the film.
Ang Lee is no one-trick pony. He previously won an Oscar for best film with Brokeback Mountain (2005), based on a story written by American writer Annie Proulx of a repressed homosexual relationship between two cowboys. His 2007 film Lust, Caution, an espionage thriller about forbidden love in pre-war Shanghai, so scandalised the communist authorities that several members of the cast were black-banned.
When I first went to Taiwan over 30 years ago, the Taiwan film industry was quite healthy, turning out cheap quickie movies that were box-office favourites throughout the Chinese diaspora. The industry then fell into a hole. Movies from Hong Kong, which at the time had one of the world’s most lucrative film industries, muscled in on the ethnic Chinese film market. About the same time, Hollywood began its onslaught on the Taiwan market.
In the old days, some tickets were so hot you had to buy them from “yellow cows”, as the scalpers were called. Comedies starring Goldie Hawn, who was known as Shao Mihu (“Little Miss Scatterbrains”) were particularly popular. Taiwan film audiences loved Private Benjamin (1980), which was marketed as Little Miss Scatterbrains Joins the Army.
An earlier American film, The Sand Pebbles (1966), set in 1920s China, was banned under the regime of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek because it cast the Nationalist government in a bad light; but when it was eventually released in Taiwan, no-one was very interested.
In the 1980s, the Taiwan film industry declined, in a similar manner to the Australian film industry around the same time. The main output was government-subsidised schlock that was either patriotic propaganda, that not even government loyalists would watch, or fodder for the international film festival circuit. When I told my workmates, upon returning to Taiwan after a long break, that the Taiwan industry had been producing some good movies, they gave me the sort of look of bemusement that I gave an English colleague when he told me he liked Australian movies. Hollywood had succeeded in rolling over the Taiwan industry as it had the Australian film industry. Well over 90 per cent of tickets sold in both nations were for American movies.
The Taiwan market is too small to support an indigenous film industry. The Golden Horse Awards are the Academy Awards for the Mandarin-speaking world. Taiwan has not been doing well for some years, but things are looking up.
Under the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) with China, Taiwan’s film-makers have the incentive of improved access to the mainland Chinese market of some 1.3 billion people, plus the diaspora of over 50 million overseas Chinese. Gangster movies do well in China. Martin Scorsese’s hit film, The Departed, was a remake of Infernal Affairs, a Hong Kong gangster epic. Monga, a gangster movie based in Taipei’s historic Wanhua district, did well at the box office and, in 2010, ended a run of outs for Taiwan at the Golden Horse Awards.
The mammoth epic and Taiwan blockbuster, Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale (reviewed by in News Weekly, September 29, 2012), tells the story of a colonial era revolt by head-hunting indigenous Seediq tribesmen against Japanese rule. Taiwan has an ambivalent attitude towards Japan, and this film caught the public imagination, grossing $26 million in domestic ticket sales, the best ever performance by a local film.
Seediq Bale follows in the path of the New Wave cinema movement that emerged in the early 1980s. The realistic and introspective movies promoted by this movement won acclaim at major film festivals, but were never big earners despite initial box-office success. Something similar could be said of Australian films of the same era.
Taiwan has realised that a sustainable film industry needs more than bucket-loads of government money. If it’s just about subsidies, what happens when the currency goes up? International interest evaporates, as it has in Australia.
Taiwan is finding a niche market in special effects by linking with international partners who possess valuable expertise and knowledge-based solutions. Taiwan, as a world leader in information technology, has a head start here.
Furthermore, producing films for a potential audience of over one billion people is a lure that Taiwan’s canny businessmen are unlikely to be able to resist for long.
The outlook for Taiwan’s film industry looks rosy because, after a long drought, it has found popular and official support. Can we say the same for Australia?
Jeffry Babb is a Melbourne-based writer, who worked for many years as a journalist in Taiwan.