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Taiwan: The Return of Local Cinema

This summer, Taiwanese cinema is not only celebrating a comeback, but is also shining like the sun. No matter how strongly the typhoon hits Taiwan, movie theaters are witnessing hundreds, if not thousands, of people waiting in line just for the new film, “Cape No.7“.

The movie became a blockbuster after 2 months, and went from poor reviews to over NT$ 100 million (aprox. US$ 3.1 million) in box-office sales (estimated). This original Taiwanese movie has suddenly become a national phenomenon, revitalizing Taiwanese citizens who until recently were feeling trapped by their poor Olympics performance, and ever-lasting political dust.

An avid movie reviewer, Ryan (zh) uses this movie to comment on the matter of a much-discussed ex-President's overseas bank account. He cannot help but wonder how great it would be if he didn't donate any money to our ex-President but to the director of Cape No.7. He also remarks that this movie does not only stand firm on the expression of local culture, but also has a truly honest and non-exploitative attitude in its portrayal of local figures. He also points out a reference to the early work of the internationally renown Taiwanese director, Hou Hsiao-Hsien.

關於侯孝賢公開美言《海角七號》,表示「太好看了,我等台灣出現這樣的電影,已經等很久了!」我想這絕非僅只 是單純禮貌性的場面話。正如他當年走出三廳電影的刻板公式,以超越類型片的細微敏感,活潑地捕捉當代台灣城鄉生活,為「全球情感,在地特色」的商業電影做 了最精彩的示範,如今相隔四分之一個世紀,小魏導演再度踏上這條軌道,以台幣五千萬打造既新穎又懷舊的《海角七號》,怎能不叫人興奮?

I don't think Director Hou's comment on Cape No.7 is just a compliment. He publicly praises Cape No.7 and says, “It's amazing, I have waited for such a good Taiwanese film for long!” As he walked away from the stereotype of old school romantic melodrama in 1970s and grasped the elaborate and vivid contemporary Taiwanese rural life with the finest sensitivity, far beyond any genre of any film, the way in which is the best example for ‘global feelings with local features’ business films. It thrills audiences that a quarter of a century later, director Wei plays the role as Hou did then. He brilliantly produces a vintage and creative film Cape No.7. How can I not get excited?!

Ryan further says:

在這痛徹心肺的日子裡,《海角七號》讓我明白,「愛台灣」三個字其實可以實踐得如此真實。

During all these heart-breaking days, Cape No.7 lets me understand one thing clearly – this film truly shows what ‘I love Taiwan’ is.

Taiwanese original cinema has long been under a great depression, therefore, ‘supporting Taiwanese original cinema’ also has been sloganized as a patriotic activity. Although Taiwanese original films have won awards and have significant reputation at notable film festivals, they are still considered caviar by the general public and end up as box-office poison in local cinema markets. In the long run, film companies, distributors and cinemas lose their interest in investing and showing Taiwan original films.

Another film, The Wall(牆之魘), was out earlier this year, but faced an embarrassing difficulty: no cinema wanted to show it, as annpo puts it (zh):

因為這個「二二八的背景」讓許多電影院不願意上映這部電影(但我想國片本來就很毒藥XD)

Due to its setting related to the 228 incident, many cinemas were reluctant to show The Wall.(However, I thought Taiwanese cinema had been box-office poison for ages XD)

Cape No.7 has something different than what audiences generally expect from Taiwanese cinema. Taiwanese lost their confidence in Taiwanese cinema for a long time. They regarded seeing Taiwanese films as charity. Cape No.7 is a good story teller, telling stories with local consciousness currently cultivating in Taiwan. Further, its reputation is built by word of mouth and on the Internet. Audiences go to see the film not only for doing something which means “I love Taiwan” but for experiencing their love for Taiwan.

Cape No.7's success in box-office makes many audiences feel excited. Yang Xiao Guai says:

終於,等到國片迷到眾生的這一刻。這種心情,還真像《海角》裡那個「要放火把恆春燒了、召回所有年輕人回鄉,重新打造一個自己的 恆春」的鎮代;我想這是候孝賢說的:「等這部片子等了十年」的意思,在極端高傲(如蔡明亮)和極端白爛(如吳宗憲)的電影,畫分出小眾和微眾的國片巿場之 後,終於出現了黃金交叉點,達到絕大多數台灣人的情感和價值觀的邊際曲線,喚回了這十年來被排除及出走的國片觀眾。

Finally, I have waited for this moment for so long when everyone is fascinated by Taiwanese cinema. I can feel what the councilor in Cape No.7 feels when he says, “I wanna burn down the whole Hengchun, and then call all young Hengchuners to come back to rebuild our own Hengchun”. This is also what director Hou means, when he says, “I have been waiting for this film for ten years”. The Taiwanese film market has been divided by two parallel lines: one is arrogant (e.g.Tsai Ming-liang ) and the other one is naughty (e.g. Jacky Wu). The two lines also represent segments of the Taiwanese cinema market: a minor group and small group audiences. Cape No.7 is at the crossover point between the feelings and values of most Taiwanese and, it recalls audiences who have been excluded from these market segments.

Because Cape No.7 has been so successful at the box-office, many people started to discuss marketing for Taiwanese cinema and analyze the success of this film. As Tzara mentions:

如果說《海角七號》的狂賣也來自於「普羅大眾的口碑」,那《海角七號》另一個重大的影響力就是成功拉抬普羅 觀眾對於國片觀感。而這裡只得「普羅觀眾」,正是那些願意「不作任何功課」,光看到片名、廣告、電影海報、電影預告就願意進去看的「大眾」;是那些過往認 為「看國片浪費錢」、「看國片一點都不能拿出來說嘴,不能獲得同儕認同」的大眾。而《海角七號》得以成功攻進這塊過往難以攻佔的票房人口,才是真正賣座的 關鍵。

If Cape No.7's success is because of mass word of mouth, changing mass audiences’ view of Taiwanese films is another success it achieved. The mass audiences I mention here, are those who are attracted by the film's name, advertising, poster and trailer voluntarily, and then go to cinemas to see a Taiwanese film. These mass audiences are also those who thought ‘watching Taiwanese films is a waste of money’, ‘watching Taiwanese films cannot be a subject to talk about with friends’, and ‘watching Taiwanese films is not something that friends would identify with’. The key point that makes No.7 so successful at the box-office is that it successfully breaks those stereotypical thoughts in people's heads.

國片觀眾+第一波普羅大眾在網路討論的熱度(尤其是PTT),MSN暱稱的串聯,成功吸引第二波普羅大眾的興趣,甚至形成「非看不可」,「大家都在看」的一窩瘋現象(很正面的)。

The heat of online discussions among the first wave mass audiences (particularly on PTT and MSN nicknames) triggered the interest of the second wave mass audiences. This also led to positive bandwagon phenomenons- ‘must see the film’ and ‘everyone's seeing the film ‘.

The first film that successfully attracted audiences by word of mouth marketing this year is Winds of September (九降風). It earned NT$ 3 million at the box-office. (In response to the current Taiwanese cinema trend, “Winds of September” will be shown in theatres again soon.) Last year, Island Etude (練習曲)was a suceess at the box-office thanks to internet and word of month marketing, earning NT$ 9 million. To build the reputations of the film, Chen Huai-en, the director, disregarded costs and publicly showed the film for free around Taiwan. He said he wanted cinema to be not just for the young, but for families also.

As annpo writes in her article:

陳懷恩苦笑地說,以台灣現在的國片環境,這些心血自然無法以獲利的方式回收,但他拍這樣的電影,原本就不奢 望能夠賺錢,而是希望能讓很多人都有機會來看這部電影,台灣各地的人都看得到,全家人一起看…,讓大家感受一下台灣的美好,學習從不同的方位視角來看台 灣,這塊我們的土地。

Director Chen smiles sadly and says: my painstaking efforts in making this film could not be expected to pay back through box-office earnings. He, however, had never anticipated any hopes of turning a profit from the film. He wanted audiences everywhere in Taiwan to be able to see it, to come to enjoy the film with their families. What he expected was to let everyone experience the beauty of Taiwan and learn to see it from various perspectives.

Cape No.7 achieves the goal Island Etude expected to achieve last year. Its audiences cover wider age-levels. The film intends to describe local flavors, features different ethnic groups, lovely common people through touching elements of dreams and love.

Woosean, who is good at writing film reviews, says:

我對魏德聖這個人的佩服,以及本片散發出的、屬於台灣電影的潛力。雖然我相信追求夢想不是賭博,但我欣賞魏 德聖這種義無反顧的氣魄,而本片雖然離完美很遠,但本片確實展現了近期台灣電影少有的潛力,這潛力橫跨商業性與在地元素的利用,以致於直指人心的單純感 動,再再說明了,有好的故事、好的團隊與好的管理技巧,台灣電影也能揚眉吐氣。

I admire Director Wei, and feel the potential for Taiwanese cinema from his film. I believe making dreams come true is not a gamble, but I really admire his guts making all efforts to pursue his dreams without any regrets. Although this film is far from perfect, it still expresses potential which is rarely found in recent Taiwan original films. The potential is from across business and well-using local elements in the way which directly makes audiences moved. All of these just shows that a good story with a good production crew team and management could make Taiwan original cinema proud again.

誰說我們沒有故事?只要願意想、願意說,故事真的隨處都是。

Who says we have no stories to tell? Stories are everywhere if you are willing to think and tell.

Many audiences are touched by the love story (zh) in the film. However, more audiences are moved by the rationales delivered by the film. These rationales include Taiwan identity issues (zh), local changes and stories behind these changes (zh), and folk cultures (zh). BOT issues of Taiwan's natural scenes and mountain forests draw attention to audiences. As poiesis says (zh):

山上也要BOT,海邊也要BOT,什麼都被BOT。

BOT in mountain natural forests, BOT in beaches…We are being BOTed.

為什麼這麼一片美麗的海,被飯店圍起來,我們民眾都沒辦法看到?

Why is the beautiful beach surrounded with barriers by the hotel owner? Why as local residents, can we not enjoy the beach?

只能讓住在這飯店的外地人看? ──電影《海角七號》

Why is it that the beach can only be seen by tourists?—-quoted from film “Cape No.7″

正當《海角七號》的那段台詞大概已是流傳街頭巷尾的耳熟能詳,搶救蕃仔澳及杉原海岸的雙灣行動,也同時開始了。沒人可以說得清楚,是公民社會團體挪借了《海角七號》的大眾支持?抑或,這只是因為《海角七號》表達出了「非台北觀點」共同感受的集體憤怒?

While these dialogs are so well-known after Cape No.7's success at the box-office, environmental campaigns to save Fan-Zai Bay(蕃仔澳)and Shan-Yuan coast (杉原海岸 have just started. No one is clear to say whether citizen action groups borrow people's support for “Cape No.7″. “Cape No.7″ expresses collective anger different from the Taipei perspective often heard from mainstream media.

Munch directly points out that the goal of the film is to implicitly criticize local reality. He pays tribute to the director's ambition to do so in the film:

在電影裡,不會只是消費鄉土風味,現實的鄉土反思都在,懶惰的郵差,衝動的警察,甚至談及地方發展的困境, 讓人看明星,也能看見土地,特別是借了夏都旅館的場地,讓鎮代痛罵外來者佔據沙灘,恆春人不能享受,罵的正是佔據大灣沙灘的夏都,這種反省與膽識,看了讓 人過癮,借你地還罵你,夠棒的魏德聖導演。

“Cape No.7″ is not just simply using local flavor, but reconsiders local reality: lazy postmen, reckless polices and even talking about local development and its difficulties. While watching the film, audiences see not only singers turn into film stars, but also local and related issues. A particular scene which setting borrows from the Château Beach Resort in Kenting, is impressing. In this scene, local councilors harshly criticize that the beach has been occupied by certain people coming from outside Kenting and are running a hotel there, while local residents are blocked from entering by barriers. In fact, this implies the Château Beach Resort has long occupied the public beach for their business. How dare the Director Wei De-Shen do this: criticize the owner who lends his place for your filming?! Good Job!

“Cape No.7″‘s success at the box-office means a lot to Taiwanese original cinema. Audiences are getting to know a great diversity of Taiwanese local stories and spectacular Taiwanese original cinema through popular film language. The director's messages are delivered and being understood while audiences laugh and are moved by the film.

Following the current trend of Taiwanese cinema, the new film “Orz Boys” (囧男孩)talks of single-parent boys’ dreams and imagination of life. Achieving box-office success in a similar way to “Cape No.7″, Orz Boys touches audiences’ hearts by the language of the film which makes people laugh and cry.

For Taiwanese cinema, this is considered a year of renaissance, reviving box-offices and a variety of film genres. These films represent  the creativity and diversity of Taiwanese cinema, including “God Man Dog“(流浪神狗人), Butterfly (蝴蝶)and The Wall(牆之魘) based on historical and cultural issues, Gay and Lesbian films Candy Rain (花吃了那女孩)and Drifting Flowers(漂浪青春), YA films Winds of September (九降風)and Orz Boys, and even a semi-documentary What on earth have i done wrong?!(情 非得已之生存之道). Moreover, most directors and actors of above-mentioned films are rookies, who bring in a fresh look to Taiwanese cinema.

This post is originally written in Chinese by Annpo, translated into English by Chia-Chun and me.

2 comments

  • I’ve said for many years that Taiwanese cinema has been polarized into the arthouse and low-brow humor camps, and that if anyone bothered to meet in the middle they’d be a success; it’s just surprising that it’s taken this long for someone to actually do it.

    I don’t think that any one of the political views in the movie should be taken as a blanket statement, though. The character who says a lot of these things is a “local representative”, who in general are little better than local thugs, completely unelected “officials” who usually think more about their personal gain than the actual welfare of their “districts”. So I’d take those lines with a grain of salt. The director could just as easily be making a comment about how the “representative” system is in conflict with the rule of law.

  • […] Portnoy at Global Voices discusses the resurgence of Taiwanese cinema. […]

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