The Shows We Loved, the Shows We Love: Taiwanese TV Drama Looks to the Future

The Shows We Loved, the Shows We Love: Taiwanese TV Drama Looks to the Future
Photo Credit: Taiwan Panorama

What you need to know

The diversity and tolerance of Taiwanese society have allowed film and TV creators to unleash their creativity by taking on the challenge of turning tough social issues into exciting dramas.

By Chen Chun-fang / Photos by Kent Chuang / Translation by Geof Aberhart

Looking down the list of nominees for the 2022 Golden Bell Awards, we see a proliferation of TV shows of all sorts—period dramas like Gold Leaf and Seqalu: Formosa 1867, family comedies like The Making of an Ordinary Woman 2, crime thrillers like Danger Zone, the firefighter-­focused workplace drama Tears on Fire, and even a Taiwanese Opera show, Lord Jiaqing and the Journey to Taiwan. This diversity of theme and genre reflects the energy and dynamism that runs through contemporary Taiwanese TV drama.

From Justice Bao to Meteor Garden

“Taiwanese screen drama has gone through a variety of phases over the past 40 years.” Phil Tang, president of GrX Company and former deputy director of Hakka TV, has been a producer, director, and record producer. He has spent over 20 years working in Taiwanese film and television, and has a number of observations on the ­latter medium. In his earliest days, TV series adapted from the novels of Chiung Yao were particularly popular, as were adaptations of folk tales about the Song-­Dynasty figure Justice Bao Qingtian. Virtually every Chinese speaker of a certain age, whether from Taiwan or elsewhere, has memories of watching those shows.

Then, in 2001, Meteor Garden ushered in the age of idol dramas in Taiwan. The success of Meteor Garden, says Tang, was not just the show itself but also the stars and the music around it, all of which drew attention to Taiwan. The show was later remade in Japan, South Korea, and China, and in 2022 there has even been a Thai version. It has truly set an amazing benchmark for Taiwanese idol dramas.

Photo courtesy of PTS
Wake Up gave audiences a detailed, dramatic look at the human struggles in the medical world.
Photo courtesy of GrX
Wake Up 2 took its production all the way to Jordan, with shocking scenes including a subway bombing setting a spectacular new standard for Taiwanese TV dramas.

In the past five years, the rise of streaming services has brought about changes in viewing habits, and the character of drama production has changed with them. Tang believes that with hot topics on social media driving discussion, content previously considered to appeal only to niche audiences, and more novel styles and genres, have become markedly more visible.

Awakening ambitions

In 2008, the Taiwanese movie Cape No. 7 was a box-­office hit, earning NT$530 million and injecting new energy into the long-sluggish local film and television industry. It also gave film and TV producer Hank Tseng a new burst of hope that inspired him to found Greener Grass Production (now part of GrX) and experiment with making genre dramas.

Wake Up, released in 2015, focused on anesthetists, people who are critical in surgical procedures but rarely get noticed. Over its six episodes, this mini­series brought up issues of medical overwork, medical disputes, patients being bounced from hospital to hospital, and other problems in the medical system. The realistic medical scenes and the professional performances of the actors made Wake Up a hit, and at the 2015 Golden Bell Awards it won Best Miniseries, as well as Best Supporting Actor, Best Director, and Best Screenwriter in the miniseries category, blazing a trail for genre dramas.

Expanding engagement with social issues

The diversity and tolerance of Taiwanese society have also allowed film and TV creators to unleash their creativity by taking on the challenge of turning tough social issues into exciting dramas.

In 2018, the sci-fi series On Children explored parent–­child relationships and was launched simultaneously on Netflix, Taiwan’s Public Television Service (PTS), and LINE TV. The trailer released ahead of the premiere alone attracted over a million views. Breaking away from the usual warm, friendly treatment of educational issues in past shows, On Children instead made use of wild flights of fancy, such as a remote control that could turn back time, to explore issues such as suffocating family relationships imposed in the name of love, and society’s blind pursuit of achievement. After the show launched on international streaming platforms, it sparked heated discussions at home and abroad and created more room for Taiwanese dramas to be heard.

The outstanding performance of show after show got more and more people involved. Even ­DaMou Entertainment, which had started out in the role of investor, joined the ranks of the storytellers. They launched their first shot in 2019 with The World Between Us. Starting from a random killing, the show explored emotional turning points for the victim’s family and the relatives and friends of the perpetrator, as well as delving into questions around media ethics, stigmatization of mental illness, and the death penalty, provoking the audience to think about various social issues.

In the past, hard social issues, however well received by critics, rarely made for popular programming. However, after The World Between Us premiered, it earned strong ratings on both TV and streaming, with nearly 4 million people watching the final episode on the online platform CatchPlay alone. The show’s success proved that there is a market for works tackling serious issues and that as long as they are of sufficient quality, audiences will pay for them.

Photo courtesy of DaMou Entertainment
The World Between Us, produced by DaMou Entertainment, uses random killings, the debate over the death penalty, and questions of media ethics as material to transform tough social issues into exciting television.
Local stories, global vocabulary

Both Hank Tseng and Phil Tang have always had their eye on making content grounded in the local ­market.

The Victims’ Game is one example of GrX working to tell local stories with an international ­visual vocabulary. The plot begins with a forensic officer who is on the autism spectrum, who joins forces with a ruthless bloodsucker of a journalist to investigate a serial murder case involving the officer’s missing daughter. As they work together, the pair gradually uncover the truth behind the bizarre killings. Different from the usual straightforward narrative logic of Taiwanese procedurals, The Victims’ Game skillfully weaves in major cases that have occurred in Taiwan, leading the audience to deliberate on the identities of the victims.

As the plot progresses, it is gradually revealed that the victims may be the murderers, and the fragility and scars behind each character bring out the empathy and desire to be understood within people’s hearts.

The Victims’ Game takes a broader perspective on society rather than focusing on the simplistic dichotomy of “good guys” versus “bad guys,” black versus white. With its fresh narrative style, the show subtly reveals the kindness and light within people. The Victims’ Game topped Netflix in Taiwan for more than ten days running and also entered the top ten in Vietnam, Singapore, Hong Kong, and ­elsewhere. Even before production began on the second season, Netflix committed to backing the show, which is quite an exciting achievement for Taiwanese television drama.

Tseng believes that Taiwan’s tolerance of diversity is also echoed in the inclusive imagination of the content industry, offering the different perspectives which have become a feature of Taiwanese shows in the international market. Although Taiwan is not the kind of dominant culture that can call the shots on the global stage, “our stories can nonetheless be meaningful, be resonant, and strike a chord with audiences.”

Photo courtesy of GrX
The Victims’ Game tells a local story in an international language, attracting audiences from all over the world through an international streaming platform and proving that Taiwan can also produce quality crime shows.
Gold Leaf’s new aesthetic

The 2021 period drama Gold Leaf, co-produced by PTS and GrX, depicts Taiwan in the 1950s, an era of turbulence in the island’s economics, politics, and international relations, but also a time when Taiwanese tea was enjoying the spotlight internationally. The show offers a female protagonist who throws herself into the cut and thrust of the Taiwanese tea trade in an era when businesswomen were a rarity, as well as showcasing Taiwan’s past through the lives of tea farmers, tea masters, and other ordinary figures.

Phil Tang, who is one of the show’s producers, notes that in the past, period ­dramas were all about the emotional slow-burn, but Gold Leaf moves at a cracking pace and focuses not on the emotional relationships of its leads but on the rough-and-tumble world of business, with the emotional side embroidering the story as appropriate. The dignified scenes of the rich families, the elegant outfits of the leading lady, the culture of tea drinking, the magnificent scenery of Taiwan’s tea plantations, and more are all carefully set out in Gold Leaf. Although it is a story of a time gone by, it is full of modern visual techniques, creating a new aesthetic for Taiwanese television. “We’re trying to create a new visual language that will help local themes reach new heights,” says Tang hopefully.

Photo courtesy of PTS
Whether it’s tea making, tea tasting, or character costumes, Gold Leaf’s every scene is meticulously planned, giving the period drama a fresh feel and creating a new aesthetic for Taiwanese drama.
Showcasing Taiwanese values

Having looked back on the wonderful Taiwanese dramas of the past few years, what do we have to look forward to next?

GrX, for one, is extending its reach into family television with a show tentatively titled Chef of a Hundred Flavors. The main character is the grandson of a master catering chef. His grandfather always prepared sumptuous sacrificial meals to entertain the wandering spirits at Ghost Festival, but after he passes, how will his grandson use the old recipes to reproduce the feast? Through drama, GrX aims to explore the grandparent–grandchild relationship. Hank Tseng smiles as he remarks that the tradition of hosting a banquet for lonely souls is also something unique to Taiwan.

2023 will also see DaMou Entertainment’s third series launch. The Wave Makers will focus on the daily lives of a group of communications staff behind an election campaign.

Politics may be a sensitive topic, says CEO Lin Yu-ling, but it’s also part of ordinary life. Every country has its own election culture, and The Wave Makers will set out to present Taiwan’s unique one with a relaxed and absurd tone. “This is something that is very close to Taiwanese people’s hearts, but I’m sure people abroad will be able to empathize,” says Lin expectantly.

Photo courtesy of GrX
The mini-series 2049 is a science fiction piece based on the concept that despite all our technological progress, the human heart remains still full of desires and agonies.
Photo courtesy of PTS
Television drama can amplify the imagination; On Marriage uses fantastical technology to save marriages, such as these moon blocks capable of reading minds.

Following on from On Children, PTS is launching another anthology series in December 2022, entitled On Marriage, which explores the fragility and challenges of partnerships. It will also continue the sci-fi setting, with the protagonists trying futuristic technological products to save their marriage in each episode, such as moon blocks that read minds and a “smart mouse” that can make wishes come true. With its tension and energy, the show is expected to spark much reflection on marriage among the public.

With Taiwanese television drama entering a new golden era, which shows are you taking a shine to?

This article was originally published on Taiwan Panorama. Read the original article here.

READ NEXT: Lights, Camera, Action!, Screenwriters Up Their Game

TNL Editor: Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)

If you enjoyed this article and want to receive more story updates in your news feed, please be sure to follow our Facebook.