HBO’s First Chinese-Language Original Series Takes Taiwan to the World

Credit to: The Teenage Psychic 通靈少女臉書
Why you need to know

HBO's first Chinese-language original series has been endorsed by the Taiwan president.

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For the first time since HBO was founded in 1972, the network has launched a Chinese-language original series. “The Teenage Psychic follows a 16-year-old psychic as she struggles with the pressures of her teenage life and the demands of the spirit world.

“The Teenage Psychic, which was shot and set in Taiwan, drew an enthusiastic response after it premiered on April 2. Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) shared the series via her Facebook page, asking people to support it and saying it marks a significant step in promoting Taiwan's film and TV production industry to the world.

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Photo Credit to: 蔡英文臉書

It is rare to see Asian characters cast in the main roles in mainstream Hollywood productions, where the film industry is often accused of “whitewashing” Asian characters and culture.

For example, The Guardian recently noted “Ghost in the Shell was “adapted from Japanese filmmaker Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 anime classic of the same name and had been, leading up to its release, criticized for casting Scarlett Johansson in the lead role. Fans of the original largely thought the role should have gone to a Japanese or Japanese-American actress. In their eyes, this was a perfect opportunity for Hollywood to give a minority actor a shot.

Unlike “Ghost in the Shell, “The Teenage Psychic, was shot entirely on location in Taipei, with an all-Taiwanese cast.

“The Teenage Psychic” uses both Mandarin Chinese and local dialects, Taiwanese and Holo. Since the traditional folk religion and temple culture are popular in the south and central south Taiwan, where many people speak Taiwanese and Holo, the 29-year-old Taiwanese writer-director, Chen Ho-Yu (陳和榆), urged the use of the local languages. Despite some initial push-back from the network, Chen prevailed.

In an article on Taiwan Today, Chen said that he believes the language is vital to the series’ authenticity and after considerable back-and-forth, he managed to convince the Singaporean producers to include it.

The series is initially available in 23 Asian countries and territories.

Spooky plot

The series follows a 16-year-old who happens to be psychic, but is reluctant to take advantage of her abilities and would rather have a normal life and fit in with other kids her age. It is a hybrid of light romance, drama and the supernatural.

The main actress Kuo Shu-yau(郭書瑤) told The Philippine STAR, about the main character she played. “She wants to experience a love life, she wants to have her own life,” she said. “At the same time, she still wants to help them (people with supernatural needs). When fulfilling the needs of others, (she feels that) her needs are (being) fulfilled.”

Interestingly, it was originally inspired by an interview with a psychic, Chen told The Initium.

Chen said he used a teenage girl's perspective to look into the complexity of the temple culture in Taiwan.

"Temple culture has its bright and dark sides.

He chose a 16-year-old girl for the central character because he wanted to show the dramatic conflict between an innocent girl versus the complicated adult world.

When asked about why his protagonist is a female, he quoted one of Japan's greatest animation directors, Hayao Miyazaki, When a man is shooting a handgun, it's just like he is shooting because that's his job. When a girl is shooting a handgun, it's really something.

Taiwan's unique temple culture

Life of Taiwan, an expat-run website focusing on Taiwan culture, says Taiwan’s religious environment is characterized by tremendous diversity and tolerance.

"There’s some competition between faiths but almost no friction. Some people practice Buddhism and some follow Taoism, or both, blended with folk beliefs. For anyone who grew up in the West or the Middle East, where monotheistic faiths require exclusive loyalty, the pick-and-mix approach of much Taiwanese to religion is initially bewildering but always intriguing."

The website also says that an interesting part of Taiwan's folk religion is that it is sometimes based on utilitarianism; people hope the beliefs and superstition could bring them luck, health, and prosperity. Rather than pursuing self-improvement or mental peace, a lot of folk rituals are designed to bring immediate personal benefit, such as a good job offer or success in school examinations.

The psychic in “The Teenage Psychic can communicate with gods, ghosts, and other spirits, people can ask the psychic to change their luck, or do "Siu-kiann," a traditional therapy commonly used in Taiwan. For example, if a baby can’t stop crying or screaming for an unknown reason, the parents might take the baby's clothes to seek help from a Taoist priest or psychic who can do Siu-kiann. Adults also seek this method when they believe they are experiencing bad luck.

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Photo Credit to: 公視通靈少女

This is the thing that I want to talk about, spirits, gods, ghosts are secondary things that people should care. the director told The Initium, We have to cherish what we have and who we meet because we simply cannot control the future. We cannot control what has happened in the past, that's gone. But the present is something we still have and that is where we can apply the lessons of the past.

According to Variety, “Through collaborating with Public Television Service (PTS) and remarkable talents in Taiwan to increase our production of local language content, HBO Asia is perfectly placed to bring our creative spin for regional audiences to enjoy,” said Jonathan Spink, CEO of HBO Asia in a statement.

“I am very happy to announce PTS’s first collaboration with HBO Asia on their first Chinese original series, also their first Taiwan series, working with a young and upcoming local team, bridging the gap between television and film with the talented mix of crew and actors. Cultivating local young talents and helping them to connect with the international industry is PTS’s top priority,” said Jessie Shih, director of the international department at PTS.

Editor: Edward White

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