Taiwanese Cinema Revival: Moving Beyond State Subsidies and Arthouse

Taiwanese Cinema Revival: Moving Beyond State Subsidies and Arthouse
Photo Credit: CNA
What you need to know

After two decades of decline, Taiwanese cinema has seen a revival. We have to look far back at the Motion Picture Act and government grant scheme to understand how this happened.

When we discuss the concept of film, it can exist as a commodity, as an art form, or as narration. The word “film” refers to a whole world of ideas. 

But what film was — and some extent still is  — in Taiwan defies all the usual definitions. 

In the ‘80s, the government devised a grant scheme to boost arthouse productions. The goal was to win international prizes, to legitimize the Kuomintang’s rule before the world after the United States had officially recognized China. 

There were a few successes, but the result was Taiwanese films that scared off most domestic viewers by the end of the century. To explain why there was a post-2016 blossoming of Taiwan’s film industry, we need to start from a really bad place.

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Photo Credit: CNA / New York Taipei Cultural Center
A poster from the 42nd Asian American International Festival features a film still from Cities of Last Things. 
The Motion Picture Act (1983) and its amendments

Since the promulgation of The Motion Picture Act in November 1983, movie theaters were obliged to observe central government authority’s guidance on session intervals between film screenings, and even “cleaning time.” 

But the government had its hands in more significant matters, too. Under the Act, it was illegal for filmmakers to produce, direct, write, and act in national productions without a Film Industry Practitioner Registry Certificate (電影從業人員登記證). They had to refrain from criticizing the government or risk violating Article 21, which said “practitioners shall not behave in such ways that may inflict damages upon the country or the film industry.”

Much as these clauses make good laughs for today’s young, sophisticated audience, they also violated the Constitution and were in full effect even as recently as 2015. Despite never being enforced in recent memory, Article 21 and similar clauses are a national disgrace that parliament took over 31 years to remove.

In the past three decades, minor and insubstantial amendments were made, some of which even hindered the film industry’s development. In 2001, lawmakers revoked the protective measures for domestic films to make way for Hollywood productions. This removal dealt a devastating blow to an already malnourished industry that was too feeble to put up a fight. By the end of 2001, the nationwide box office that amounted over NT$2.2 billion, of which only NT$3.7 million went to national titles, accounting for a paltry 0.17 percent.

During the second reading of the 2015 amendment bill to the Motion Picture Act, Legislator Cheng Li-chiun, who later became Taiwan’s most beloved Minister of Culture, challenged the Act with an astute comment:

“Taiwan’s export-oriented economy, along with the many sacrifices we made for our bid to join the WTO, we gave up on many domestic industries and our environment,” Cheng said. “The culture industry was especially compromised, but we might have to rely on this ‘smokeless industry’ in the future.”

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Photo Credit: CNA
Cheng Li-chiun was Taiwan's Minister of Culture between 2016 and 2020, during which she received public praise for her efforts in revitalizing Taiwan's culture industries. 
1989: The Grant and a decade of decline

Taiwan’s efforts to fix the domestic film industry began in earnest with a 1988 subsidy scheme that was never meant to be a long term measure

The Grant  — still without an official English title to this day  — may as well be referred to as the “National Cinema Development Grant” (國片製作輔導金), first awarded in 1989 to Hou Hsiao-hsien to film A City of Sadness.

Hou brought back three trophies from the Venice Film Festival for the film, garnering high praise from Taiwanese policymakers who were able to see the art’s potential to serve the then democratizing state. 

A government analysis even shamelessly listed “subsidized productions often receive recognition by major international festivals” as one of four practical benefits of the National Cinema Development Grant, concluding:

“It is evident that participating in major film festivals not only significantly improves national cinema’s international status, but also increases our country’s visibility in the arena.”

In this regard, the Grant scheme had undoubtedly succeeded with flying colors. Between 1990 and 2008, domestic films awarded in international competition amounted to 176 titles, 73 of which received subsidies from the National Cinema Development Grant. In other words, the grant bet on the right horse four out of 10 times, which is not a poor investment.

Yet the scheme failed to encourage production, increase jobs, or cultivate world-class directors, writers, and actors. Beneath the sheen of the famous directors Hou, Ang Lee and Edward Yang, laid an industry malnourished to its core. Taiwan’s domestic production saw a steady seven-year dive from 75 titles per year to 18 by 1996, and even through to today hasn’t surpassed 30.

Meanwhile, the ratio of National Cinema Development Grant funded production was soaring like a fire-pissing Falcon 9 rocket. It is a troubling sign, as it attests to the industry’s dependence on government handouts. Among the 75 films produced in 1990, only one had the help of government money, but by 1994, over half of Taiwanese films were made with the subsidy. In 2003, all 14 productions received government money.

After nearly two decades, the Grant had not fostered a self-sustaining film industry, but a crippled one, reliant on the state. The Taiwanese government is guilty. Its industrial film policy encouraged a decade of a marathon in pursuit of conquering arthouse competitions, rather than capturing the imagination of everyday moviegoers.

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Photo Credit: Franchise Global Art
A City of Sadness 
2009: The China Gold Rush

In February 2009, then-President Ma Ying-jeou pursued a free trade agreement with China later known as the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA). 

When the agreement came into effect, Taiwanese distributors could sell any number of films to China as long as the work complied with local laws. With this offer, China set off a gold rush among filmmakers in Taiwan.

The financial gains seemed like a big win, but only if we neglect intangible costs like self-censorship. Stories as harmless as Zone Pro Site (2013) – a tale of a self-appointed master chef turning around a failing noodle stand  — managed to upset Chinese censors by sending the protagonist to compete in a “national” cooking contest in Taiwan

By 2016, Taiwanese cinemas were not only showing fatigue in box office competitions but also in the capacity to expand aesthetic landscapes, according to Taiwanese film critic Wen Tien-hsiang. 

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Photo Credit: Netflix
Dear Ex

Taiwanese critics have not been happy with what local filmmakers have put on screen, but they also failed to stress that Taiwanese cinema is reviving with substance and a refreshingly wide range of stories. 

The year 2019 saw the release of an intense, politically charged Detention, whose sheer existence just years ago was still inconceivable. Before that, there was Dear Ex that tells the story of secret love between a gay couple that resonates with a large audience. 

Many saw the sudden freeze on bilateral relations between Taiwan and China in 2016 would throw the film industry back to nuclear winter, we now see the facts are saying otherwise. 

Taiwanese film industry continues to grow precisely because the spoon-feeding had finally stopped. While filmmakers may not be serving Taiwan’s diplomacy, they’re now dissatisfied with being subjected to other people’s narratives. They must find their own stories.

And they already seemed to have a decent start.


READ NEXT: 6 Best Taiwanese Films to Watch on Netflix During Quarantine

TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty, Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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