Screenwriters up Their Game: Bringing Taiwanese Drama to the World

Screenwriters up Their Game: Bringing Taiwanese Drama to the World
Courtesy of Activator Marketing

What you need to know

With the most free and democratic society in the Mandarin-speaking world, Taiwan’s government and companies are working together to produce original content that attracts the international audience.

By Mei Kuo / Photos by Jimmy Lin / Translation by Scott Williams

Taiwan’s screenwriters have been going all out over the last two years, with TV shows such as Gold Leaf and The World Between Us attracting large audiences and getting people talking. Taiwan is generally recognized as having the freest and most democratic creative environment in the Chinese-speaking world. Now, public and private entities are working together to improve our television and film industry’s business model. The goal is to produce original Chinese-language content that can compete in the international marketplace and attract a larger international audience.

Taiwan’s TV and film industry has evolved over the years. Adaptations of the romance novels of Chiung Yao dominated Taiwan’s movie theaters and TV screens in the 1960s to the point that nearly everyone born in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s has youthful memories of a favorite Chiung Yao adaptation. When cross-strait relations opened up in the 1980s, Taiwanese studios traveled to China to film Chiung’s works, and TV stations came to depend on buying overseas dramas to fill their schedules. Interestingly, this also gave studios the opportunity to focus on Taiwan-centric themes, resulting in more diverse subject matter.

The shows that followed, including some with nativist themes and others featuring glove puppetry, made a strong impression on audiences. Fiery Thunderbolt is a case in point. The show’s over-the-top plots and dialogue sparked heated discussions and established a large viewership for works drawing on local culture.

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Courtesy of Rosebud Production
A scene in the film The Amazing Grace of Σ
Idol shows ignite a golden age

Around this time, idol and school-focused dramas also took off. The Taiwanese idol drama Meteor Garden, adapted from a Japanese manga called Boys over Flowers, set new records for Taiwanese TV viewership. Later licensed to broadcasters in several Asian countries, the show kicked off a golden age for Taiwanese idol dramas.

Golden Bell Award-winning screenwriter Wu Luo-ying, currently chair of the Taiwan Screenwriters Association, remarks that as Taiwan’s idol dramas became popular in Asia, other Asian nations began developing their own TV and film industries, which went on to surpass Taiwan’s. 

In addition to being a means of expressing ideas, television and film are a medium for exporting local culture to the world. In recent years, the government has created a “national team” for Taiwanese TV and film, and used the Forward-Looking Digital Infrastructure Program and other government resources to support the industry.

As this was happening, the international over-the-top (OTT) media services that entered Taiwan in 2016 began to dominate the funding and production of Taiwanese works. For example, HBO Asia produced The Teenage Psychic, a miniseries grounded in temple culture, in conjunction with Taiwan’s TV and film community, and Netflix bought the global rights to the TV show Light the Night, a murder mystery involving nightclub hostesses in a then-seedy part of Taipei. Meanwhile, various government agencies provided grants to support the making of Gold Leaf and The World Between Us. This convergence of public and private capital has brought hope that the good times may be returning to Taiwanese TV and film.

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Courtesy of Rosebud Production
Golden Bell Award-winning screenwriter Wu Luo-ying’s The Amazing Grace of Σ, a TV series about a fictional cult, is her first work to place the script at the core of the production. Wu was also involved in the show’s planning, direction, and promotion.
Cultivating screenwriters

The late stage and screen actor and director Hugh Lee once said: “Dramatic works condense and reflect people’s stories.” Writers are the driving force behind these stories. How do they make them moving and engaging?

“Screenwriters have to love telling stories. The moment I think up a good story and imagine audiences enjoying it, I get excited,” says Wang Wei, the veteran writer behind the TV show Wo de Yeman Qianjin (“My Barbarous Daughter”).

Wu Luo-ying, who won a Golden Bell for Best Screenplay for the series The Hospital, expanded her skillset by also taking part in the writing, filming, and promotion of The Amazing Grace of Σ in 2022. In addition to working in TV, Luo has been teaching scriptwriting at Taipei National University of the Arts (TNUA) and National Taiwan University for the last few years to pass on her real-world experience of the craft.

On the day we interviewed Wu, she and her students had been busy brainstorming a script about a 30-year-old female mob boss managing her gang, loosely modeled on the hit American crime drama Breaking Bad.

Wu says that her screenwriting class begins by introducing students to basic character building, plot and story, structure, and outline, and the “beginning, conflict, and resolution” of three-act scripts. It culminates with students writing their own scripts, which are expected to have vibrant storylines. To develop a convincing screenplay, the students need to be able to draw on a rich body of life experience, and to be able to conduct field research.

She cites her own series The Hospital, which centers on doctors competing amongst themselves for power and prestige, as an example. Though she was only 32 years old when she began working on it, she was already a mother of two who had lived through marriage, divorce, and a cancer diagnosis. These experiences added depth to the show’s depictions of medical work, the meaning of life, and care for others. But she says that Taiwan’s educational environment funnels most people into an education-to-career pipeline, and thereby deprives them of unique life experiences. “Why don’t people work first, and then return to school to study?” she wonders.

Taiwan is currently using multiple channels to support the projects of screenwriters and producers. For example, the Ministry of Culture (MOC) organizes a screenplay competition and provides grants to produce both short and feature films. Similarly, the Taipei and Kaohsiung city governments also hold screenplay competitions and offer subsidies for filming in their respective cities. In short, many forums exist in which writers can express themselves.

Meanwhile, the Taiwan Creative Content Agency (TAICCA) began operating in November 2019. The group works with the MOC to flexibly channel capital from the National Development Fund and the private sector to film, animation, and TV productions, as a means of fostering the emergence of a Taiwanese content industry. Chen Jia-yi, a graduate student at TNUA who received a grant to produce a short film entitled Dear Me, says, “There is so much government support. That’s an advantage we have over China and South Korea.”

To retain writing talent and protect the rights of professionals in the field, organizations including the Taiwan Screenwriters Association, the MOC, and the Taipei Art Creator Trade Union have drafted model contracts for writers and directors in the performing arts. Introduced in 2022, these contracts set standards for working hours, compensation and copyright ownership for writers, choreographers, and directors in the hope of improving working conditions in the industry.

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Wu Luo-ying teaches at Taipei National University of the Arts, where she passes on her real-world screenwriting experience.
Finding an international audience

Even though talent is being cultivated and international platforms are channeling capital into local productions, we don’t yet know whether this energy will persist.

Wang Wei says that once Taiwanese works enter the international market, they will find themselves up against global competition and big-budget productions. If we want to appeal to overseas audiences, we have to produce works with the kinds of subject matter, stories and production values that resonate with them.

In 2022, TAICCA invited the United States’ Imagine Entertainment and Asia’s Sixty Percent Productions to launch Emerge, a Chinese-language original content development program in which producers and writers share their development experience and perspectives on the international market. The program’s goal is to spur Taiwan’s development of a commercial production model and, in conjunction with Taiwanese screenwriting students, foster the creation of Chinese-language original content that has commercial potential and can capture the attention of international audiences.

As HBO Asia vice president of programming and production Andrew Chin stated in a 2017 interview with Punchline magazine, “Shows still focus on story and character. If these are strong enough, we can bridge [cultural] obstacles and guide audiences into the story.”

After seeing GAGA, Untold Herstory, and Salute, Taiwanese novelist and screenwriter Li Yuan (better known as Hsiao Yeh) remarked on his Facebook page that Taiwanese films had come a long way in the years since the industry “awakened.” He went on to praise the local industry’s innovative thinking and the hard work it has put into breaking through in new ways.

Wu Luo-ying says that Taiwan is known for having the Chinese-speaking world’s most free and democratic society, and for having the fewest limits on what its TV and film industry can depict. Now that the government is actively leading the industry into the international arena, the industry is freeing itself from its dependence on our domestic market, enabling it to develop a broader audience and a broader range of themes. She says, “If we do our work well, Taiwan’s TV and film industry has the chance to become truly international.”

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

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