10 Years Since 'Cape No. 7', What's Happened to Taiwanese Cinema?

10 Years Since 'Cape No. 7', What's Happened to Taiwanese Cinema?
Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG

What you need to know

Taiwan cinema is thriving 10 years on from the release of the blockbusting comedy.

By Ting-Ying Lin

I can still vividly remember the scene back in the summer of 2008: I spent a typical summer afternoon at the cinema and I was squeezed in with lots of people at the ticket counter in one of the local cinemas in Ximending in order to grab a ticket for the hit film Cape No. 7 (海角七號).

When watching this film with other passionate audiences, I could hear them all laughing together while they felt touched by certain points in the film. People were so obsessed with that film and some of them even watched it over and over again. During that summer, the phenomenon of "Cape No. 7 fever" appeared and almost everyone I knew in Taiwan knew about or had watched it. Cape No. 7 finally became a blockbuster and made NT$530 million (US$17.6 million) at the box office, breaking the record for a domestic film.

Ten years later, 2018 marks the 10th anniversary of the release of Wei Te-sheng’s (魏德聖) pioneering film.

The contemporary period of Taiwan cinema is generally called the "post-New Taiwan Cinema" in most scholarly works, or the "Taiwan Cinema Renaissance" (國片復興) by local critics. The launch of the post-New Taiwan Cinema is commonly considered to have started in 2008 with Cape No. 7 and carried on with other subsequent popular films such as Lin Shu-yu’s (林舒語) Winds of September (九降風) and Yang Ya-che’s (楊雅喆) Orz Boyz! (囧男孩) released in the same year.

Considering the differences in filmic styles and aesthetics between the post-New Taiwan Cinema and the previous period of Taiwan New Cinema in the 1980s and the 1990s, in this article, I would like to outline my brief observations on contemporary Taiwan cinema that has largely showcased its diversity and heterogeneity in the following ways: the rise of commercially driven popular genre cinema, independent small-budget productions tackling social issues and the continuation of art-house auteur cinema.

The rise of commercially driven popular genre cinema

It is crucial to note that the post-New Cinema has opened up a new path of genre cinema in Taiwan that stands in stark contrast to the previous auteur-led art house films of the Taiwan New Cinema in the 1980s and 1990s.

There is a clear trend of genre-driven and commercial-oriented film production and consumption, which can be broken down into the following categories: local comedies such as Cape No. 7, Yeh Tien-lun’s Night Market Hero (Jipai yingxiong) (2011), Fung Kai’s Din Tao: Leader of the Parade (Zhentou) (2012), and Chen Yu-hsun’s Zone Pro Site: The Moveable Feast (Zongpushi) (2013); history films and epics such as Wei Te-sheng’s Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale (Saideke balai) (2011) and Umin Boya’s Kano (2014); romance and teen-romance such as Giddens Ko’s You are the Apple of My Eye (Naxienian women yiqizhui de nŭhai) (2011) and Chen Yu-shan’s Our Times (Wode shaonŭ shidai) (2015); triad and cop films such as Noze Niu’s Monga(Mengjia) (2010), Li Yun-jie’s Gatao (Jiaotou) (2015) and Yen Cheng-kuo’s Gatao II: Rise of the King (Jiaotou er wangzhe zaiqi) (2018); horrors and thrillers such as Adam Tsuei’s The Tenants Downstairs (Louxia de fangke) (2016), and Cheng Wei-hao’s The Tag-Along (Hongyi xiaonuhai) (2015), Who Killed Cock Robin (Mujizhe) (2017) and The Tag-Along 2 (Hongyi xiaonuhai 2) (2017). Most of these films have been big box office success in the local film market.

Independent small-budget productions tackling social issues

Different from the realistic styles and filmic aesthetics of Taiwan New Cinema in the 1980s and 1990s, post-New Taiwan Cinema is comprised of mainstream genre-oriented commercial films for the most part. Along with this new phase, there are still some small-budget productions that deal with modern life and social issues of poverty, economic inequality, and social protests, while exploring various identities of different social groups. Examples would be Leon Dai’s No Puedo Vivir Sin Ti (Buneng meiyou ni) (2009), Cho Li’s The Rice Bomber (Baimi zhadanke) (2014), and Yee Chih-yen’s Meeting Dr. Sun (Xingdong daihao Sun Zongshan) (2014), which relate to the issues of activism and social criticism in contemporary Taiwan. Furthermore, Zero Chou’s Drifting Flowers (Piaolang qingchun) (2008) focuses on the identities and life stories of LGBTQ groups, and Cheng Yu-chieh and Lekal Sumi Cilangasan’s Wawa No Cidal (Taiyang de haizi) (2015) alongside Laha Mebow’s Lokah Laqi (Zhiyao wo zhangda) (2016) focus on the indigenous groups in Taiwan, creating a cinematic space where multiple voices from different social groups can be expressed.

The continuation of art-house auteur cinema

The continuation of art-house auteur cinema can be seen by the recent achievements of the Taiwan New Cinema figures Hou Hsiao-hsien and his film The Assassin (Cike Nieyinniang) (2015), which won the best director prize at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, as well as Tsai Ming-liang and his film Stray Dogs (Jiaoyou) (2013), which gained the Grand Jury Prize at the 2013 Venice International Film Festival. On the other hand, some independent art-house films with unique auteur styles and aesthetics signify the new generation of Taiwan’s art film directors as the successors of Taiwan New Cinema.

For example, Chung Mong-hong is famous for his signature features of black humour and cinematographic style in his films Parking (Tingche) (2008), The Fourth Portrait (Disizhang hua) (2010), Soul (Shihun) (2013) and Godspeed (Yilu shunfeng) (2016). Chung can be seen as one of the representative directors in the new generation of Taiwan art house cinema, and he won the best director prize at the 47th Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival in 2010 with The Fourth Portrait.

Furthermore, Burmese-Taiwanese director Midi Z (Kyawk Dad-yin) is recognized as a rising young art-house director who has become active in global film festivals with his Burmese-diasporic trilogy: Return to Burma (Guilai de ren) (2011), Poor Folk (Qiongren, liulian, mayao, touduke) (2012), and Ice Poison (Bingdu) (2014) as well as his latest The Road to Mandalay (Zaijian wacheng) (2016). His Ice Poison won the award for best international feature film at the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2014 and his latest The Road to Mandalay was screened at the 73th Venice International Film Festival and won the Best Film FEDEORA Award. In this regard, this element of contemporary Taiwan cinema displays the continuation of art-house auteur cinema from the previous Taiwan New Cinema.

During the 10-year development since 2008, the film industry of contemporary Taiwan cinema has become more mature and more sustainable with domestic support from the local audience. However, we can still see that some of the local critics criticize recent films from Taiwan, since none of them have won the best feature film award at the Golden Horse Awards, whereas films from Hong Kong and China over the past few years have won so many big prizes at the Golden Horse Awards.

At the end of last year, it was exciting to hear that two films from Taiwan were nominated in the best feature film category at the Golden Horse Awards, which were Huang Hsin-yao’s The Great Buddha+ (Dafou pulasi) (2017) and Yang Ya-che’s The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful (Xieguanyin) (2017). In the end, the latter film won the best feature film award at 54th Golden Horse Awards in 2017.

The nomination and the wins of several awards at last year’s Golden Horse Awards can probably be seen as a sign for the future of Taiwan cinema – a promising prospect of striking a perfect balance between commercial success and film art – by playing well not only in the local film market and but also on the film festival circuits.

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Ting-Ying Lin received her PhD from the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her research interests include contemporary Taiwan and Hong Kong cinemas, Chinese-language cinemas, East Asian cinemas and visual cultures.

The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published by Taiwan Insight, the online magazine of the University of Nottingham’s Taiwan Studies Program.

TNL Editor: David Green