“Train to Busan,” a South Korean zombie apocalypse film, has set a box office record for South Korean movies in Taiwan with a three-week gross of more than NT$300 million (US$9.5 million) since its Sept. 2 release.

The film's success has prompted many Taiwanese critics to ask why the local movie industry has been unable to produce movies on this scale and of similar quality. And with Seoul announcing on Sept. 8 that the arts will become a compulsory subject of middle school education, many have attributed Taiwan’s relative incompetence to the lack of government support and arts education.

Wenchi Lin (林文淇), former director of the Taiwan Film Institute and current associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts at National Central University, told The News Lens International that this discussion has been on-going for the past 20 years.

“This dialogue already existed, even before ‘Train to Busan,’” Lin said. “It’s only because the discussion follows a box office hit, so it seems like it has been more active recently. But it’s really nothing special to me.”

Other than talking about how Taiwan can produce its own “Train to Busan,” Lin said the discussion should be focused on why — even though we clearly know what has contributed to the boom in the South Korean movie industry — Taiwan has been unable to do the same.

“We all know Taiwan needs film taught at schools and more direction given to the industry. If you go to the government now, it will tell you about all the subsidy policies our country currently has. But they’re not helping,” he said. “The biggest factor behind the success of the South Korean movie industry isn’t a single film, but the Korean Film Council, which has a team of experts supporting the industry, and the South Korean government giving the council the resources and authority it needs to bring its influence into full play.”

Politics get in the way

The market for the Taiwanese film industry is very small, and Lin said the political environment in Taiwan has created many negative influences on the industry. For example, when the government changes from one party to another, there is a high rate of staff turnover at government departments and agencies.

“This makes it very hard to manage a long-term project, and a lot of things can’t be done,” Lin said. “The government has to 'go big' if it wants to promote the film industry.”

In addition, the Taiwanese government also lacks expertise to help guide the local film industry.

“We need a person to develop strategies if our film industry wants to enter South Korea or Japan. This doesn’t happen overnight with the government simply coming up with a slogan,” Lin said. “The things this person does might not be visible to the eye, but the people who work in the film industry will feel the environment is changing and that things are becoming easier for them.”

However, according to Lin, this role has been non-existent and there is no place in the current administration for such a position.

Even if the government suddenly comes to its senses, funds the establishment of a film council, and finds the perfect candidate to lead the council, the other government officials, the media and the people “do not have the patience to wait for the person to do his or her job,” Lin said.

“We do not trust ‘people’ anymore, nor can we bear people making mistakes, so I’m actually very pessimistic [about the future of Taiwan’s film industry],” he said.

Although Taiwan lacks patience and trust, Lin said things would be easier if this "expert" or official had the president’s full support.

“The biggest fear is that this official would work in the interest of his or her party, which is what we often see now,” Lin said. “So it comes down to whether or not the person can break through the pressure of political parties and do what’s right. But it’s very hard.”

Film education in college

Turning to education, Lin said the Taiwan Film Institute has been promoting film in elementary and middle schools, but the subject is not mandatory. The institute has created teaching material for schools, which Lin maintains would have an effect in five to seven years if the Ministry of Culture continues to support the project.

“But this only helps elementary and middle school students start to learn more about movies,” Lin said. “If the entire education system in Taiwan stays the same, merely integrating film education into the system won’t help at all.”

Under Taiwan’s current situation, Lin said, the government should instead start promoting film or arts education in universities, as college education here offers more freedom in choosing classes and resources are more accessible.

“Cultivating liberal arts education doesn’t require a lot money or equipment. What it needs are good teachers,” he said. “If a student majoring in business management takes a couple of film courses during college and develops an interest in the industry, the student might become a business management talent for the film industry after graduation.”

“So if the Taiwanese film industry lacks talent, why not start promoting film education from the top 10 colleges in the country?”

First Editor: Edward White
Second Editor: J. Michael Cole