Nervous About Making a 'Taiwanese' Film? Don't Be

A shot from "Tale of The Lost Boys." Photo Credit: Portico Media
Why you need to know

One thing is for sure, if the status quo doesn’t change, Taiwanese film industry will not grow; it will sink.

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I have to admit, I was nervous to meet the panel of judges.

Eight years ago, I had suffered major setbacks in an attempt to make a Taiwan-Japan co-production animated feature film, “Kotora on the Run.” As a big fan of Japanese anime, I developed a concept that incorporated Chinese mythology, Taiwanese history, and Japanese character design. The narrative was about a pirate boy who convinces his family to join him on a mission to retrieve an ancient artifact that could save the world.

But after several years of development and pre-production, I had to temporarily “pull the plug” and put the project on hold because of sheer exhaustion, frustration, and uncertainty of whether the film was achievable and recoupable. Despite my company winning the Golden Horse for Best Short (2006) and Taipei Film Festival for Best Feature (2007), I could not justify continuing on the project. Several hundred thousand US dollars in the red, I licked my wounds and moved on to repay the debt I had accumulated.

So why was I nervous? Because once again, I found myself back on the route to making feature films. Last Friday, I “testified” in front of a panel of seven judges to justify why the Taipei City Government Bureau of Cultural Affairs should support — in the form of a film grant — my latest efforts to co-produce a feature with other countries.

This time, the project is a live-action feature, “Tale of The Lost Boys,” working in conjunction with Filipino director Joselito Altarejos with locations, stars, and crews from both countries. The film tells a story of the serendipitous friendship between two men: Alex, a straight man escaping his troubles in Manila to Taipei in hopes of confronting his estranged mother, and Jerry, a gay aboriginal man escaping his familial tribal duties to seek freedom in the urban anonymity. It is now in the final stages of post-production and gearing up for the international festival circuit.

One of the panel judges asked me if this was even a Taiwanese film, given that so much of the crew, including the director, director of photography, and screenwriter are from the Philippines.

My tension vanished after he asked that question.

I was not nervous anymore because I am not worried or afraid of answering that question at all. I told the judges that the film is majority funded and owned by my company so the intellectual property is Taiwanese. As for the film itself, the story takes place almost entirely in Taiwan (Taipei and Yilan, northern Taiwan), and the majority of the crew are Taiwanese who have a rare chance to work closely with experienced and creative Filipino film talent who bring new perspectives and nuances to Taiwanese cinema.

If Taiwan aspires to foster a film culture where creativity and imagination are unshackled by constraints of nationality and languages, then instead of questioning a film’s origin, it should focus on searching for a film’s destination. Is Midi Z (趙德胤), who was born in Myanmar but studied film in Taiwan, a Taiwanese filmmaker? Is his latest film, "The Road to Mandalay," a Taiwanese film? Despite being shot entirely in Myanmar? Absolutely. What about "Tomorrow Come Today," a film shot in New York but by Taiwanese filmmaker Chen Ming-lang (陳敏郎)? Definitely a Taiwanese movie.

Read more: INTERVIEW: Film Director Midi Z on the 'Taiwanese Dream' in Myanmar (Part One)

What makes a film Taiwanese is contingent upon whether the story and characters reflect the Taiwanese identity and experience.

Screenwriters and filmmakers should be thinking about:

  1. How to tell a good story.
  2. How to transform that story into an effective piece of audiovisual work.

Producers and film companies should be thinking about:

  1. How to get this film made efficiently.
  2. How to sell it to as large of an audience as possible.

The responsibilities are of course not so dichotomous, as the overarching mutual consideration should be same — to make an original and empathetic movie that the audience will enjoy and reward with a ticket purchase.

If a film incorporates fresh elements that have never or have rarely seen before, it could risk alienating audiences because of its unfamiliarity, or it could intrigue and entice with its creative nuance. In short, it could shine. If a film incorporates actors, storylines, and locations from multiple countries, it could make production more difficult and expensive, or it could potentially expand the potential audience base for the film.

And the positive externality of such border-crossing films? Invigorating the depressed local film community to re-define what a Taiwanese film is and empower the next generation of producers and directors to eagerly connect with the world. Some could fail, but others might succeed. One thing is for sure, if the status quo doesn’t change, Taiwanese film industry will not grow; it will sink.

I don’t know if the judges enjoyed the premise of our story and if they were satisfied with my answers. I did observe a few nodding heads while I spoke and hope they were nodding in consent and not due to ennui from my presentation. Nevertheless, it was a personal achievement for me to re-position myself once again as a film producer, shake the past behind, and face the uncertain yet exciting future.

Perhaps my nervousness stems not from meeting the judges, but rather from realizing that the world is full of possibilities and is waiting for people to make those connections.

As she was accepting her lifetime achievement award at the 74th Golden Globe Awards, Meryl Streep poignantly highlighted the diversity in Hollywood by pointing out the various birth origins and nationalities of some present at the ceremony. She was making a statement rebuking the xenophobic tendencies of the U.S. president-elect, but at the same time certifying how Hollywood can maintain its influence in global cinema and entertainment because it pools in international talents and makes movies originating from around the world.

Taiwan is no Hollywood, but we do have an immense pool of talented directors, producers, screenwriters, actors, and a creative can-do culture. Let’s make ourselves a bit more nervous and push ourselves a bit harder, a bit wider, and a bit higher. And if through our collaborative efforts we can make Taiwanese films become "universal" films — ones that go beyond national identify and connect via human empathy — then there is nothing to be nervous about going forwards.

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Photo Credit: Portico Media
A shot from "Tale of The Lost Boys."

Editor: Olivia Yang

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