Two Taiwan stories that earned applause from global audiences in 2020 have shed light on the future of the island’s film and content production, which is poised for a bigger, more international stage.
The epiphany came following the critical acclaim for the feature drama “A Sun” and the short film “The Luggage.” The two award-winning projects that are representing Taiwan in this year’s Academy Awards race demonstrate how much the local industry has transformed in two decades. These two titles, together with “Little Hilly,” the Taiwan animated short eligible to compete for a golden statuette, also paint a picture of where Taiwanese productions are heading amid the digital revolution of the content industry worldwide.
“Our greatest strength is our creative freedom. Filmmakers are free to explore all kinds of local stories they can relate to,” says Yeh Jufeng, producer of “A Sun.” “Our greatest challenge is not the films’ quality, but the small local Taiwanese market. In order to reach out to a wider audience from around the world, we need to generate greater noise for Taiwan productions on the global stage.”
Taiwanese cinema today is primarily driven by creators and produced independently, Yeh notes. Films are mainly locally funded rather than pooling resources from large studios or outside investors. The scale of Taiwanese films today might be much smaller compared to the days of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” which was a big-budget Chinese-language production that drew talent and resources from across Taiwan, Hong Kong and mainland China, and had backing from a major production company. But the current operation model gives Taiwan filmmakers much greater flexibility and freedom in pursuing the stories they want to tell.
The thriving of such an independent production model in recent years has propelled the diversity of productions emerging from Taiwan, which has given hope to filmmakers such as Yeh.
“A Sun” is the veteran producer’s latest collaboration with director Chung Mong-hong, following the success of their previous joint ventures, “The Great Buddha+” (2017), which they co-produced, and “Soul” (2013), which Chung directed. A somber drama revolving around a fractured family of four, “A Sun” has received six accolades, including best narrative feature and best director at the native Golden Horse Awards, and has won the hearts of international film critics.
Variety’s chief film critic Peter Debruge ranked “A Sun” No. 1 on his top 10 best films of 2020, and called it “a masterpiece just waiting to be discovered.” Passion for the film soon spread, with other critics praising the film — chosen as Taiwan’s contender for the best international feature film category at the Academy Awards — and introducing the hidden gem to a global audience.
Yeh says he believes that audiences from different cultures have embraced the film because of its universal values. “The film tells the story of an ordinary family, but each family member is haunted by a broken heart. … This is a kind of fracture commonly found among East Asian families, but behind this wound [are] the deeply buried emotions that bond family members together,” she explains.
Strong family emotions can also be found in Tsai Yi-fen’s directorial debut, “The Luggage.” The dramatic short, which centers around a single father who carries his dead daughter around in a suitcase, picked up the award for best fantastic genre short film at Spain’s 53rd Sitges international film festival.
Tsai, an award-winning film and television writer who is well-known in her native Taiwan, says the film is based on a true story she came across in the local news. Beyond the shock and horror, the director-writer finds the emotional bond between father and daughter is a tale “that is poignant to anyone on earth.” She applied a genre film treatment to the human story in the hopes of reaching a wider global audience. “Those who have seen the film would be able to feel the emotions through the fantastical world conjured by the male protagonist’s imagination out of his misery,” she says.
The rise of digital platforms that have made global content widely available has stimulated the creative potential for Taiwan filmmakers and content creators, particularly those of the younger generation, Tsai notes. The abundance in genre productions on the island in recent years has replaced the realist approach to storytelling, and these productions have made local stories more accessible to audiences from abroad, she adds.
Taiwan cinema is definitely looking to go global. The number of projects that have participated in international film festivals and markets has shot up from 286 in 2015 to 367 in 2019. Local releases also went up from 38 in 2014 to 57 in 2019, according to data from the Ministry of Culture’s Bureau of Audiovisual and Music Industry Development.
Compared to the epic Wuxia that captured the world’s attention 20 years ago, Taiwan cinema today has a much stronger focus on local stories that resonate with universal values, says Ting Hsiao-ching, chairperson of the Taiwan Creative Content Agency, which pledges to bring Taiwan cinema to the global stage.
One of the agency’s key initiatives, the International Joint Venture and Co-production Last Stage Program, aims to draw industry partners that can help boost international exposure of Taiwan productions from distribution channels and pitching opportunities to OTT platforms and production companies. The agency will also find ways to attract international investment to Taiwan productions and explore new channels that can showcase local content to global audiences, Ting notes.
“We hope Taiwan stories and local productions can be seen by more audiences from around the world, contributing to a greater diversity of global content while introducing Taiwan culture to the world,” she says.