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Taiwanese Producers Struggling to Expand Beyond Their Home Market

Taiwan was the proving ground for Tsai Ming-liang, whose films, from the 1994 Venice Golden Lion winner "Vive L'Amour" to the 2010 Cannes closer "Visage," have helped make a global name for cinema from the island of roughly 23 million people, even if they seldom make money.

But not every Taiwanese can be an auteur. Commercially minded producers are now struggling to expand their horizons beyond their home market, where the total box office take for domestically made movies was just $2 million in 2009.

Producers in the capital, Taipei, lament that most moviegoers at home are young and looking mostly for mainstream romance on the big screen or for the Hollywood blockbusters that accounted for most of the $82 million grossed by imported films last year.

Taiwan's box office peaked in 1996, when ticket receipts totaled $104 million. Ever since, Taiwanese producers have had to push harder than normal to get their directors noticed.

This year at the 23rd Tokyo International Film Festival and its concurrent market, TIFFCOM, Taiwan's efforts could pay off since the its filmmakers' presence is strongly felt in a whole section of the festival dedicated to the self-governing island's new movies.

Taiwanese Cinema Renaissance: New Breeze of the Rising Generation features six vastly different films -- from 1980s gangster drama "Monga" by director Doze (aka Niu Chen-Zer), starring Juan Ching-Tien and Mark Chao, to the world premiere of "Juliets," an omnibus reinterpretation of Shakespeare's character from directors Hou Chi-jan ("Juliet's Choice"), Shen Ko-shang ("Two Juliets") and Chen Yu-hsun ("One More Juliet").

Also featured in the section co-organized by the Taipei Film Commission, the Taiwan Government Information Office and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in Japan is director Hsiao Ya-chuan's youth romance "Taipei Exchanges," presented by Liu Weijan, producer at distribution and production company Atom Cinema.

"There's hope," for the new generation, Liu recently told THR. "More and more young Taiwan directors want to start a conversation with audiences beyond the island, especially with the Mainland."

Along with Monga and Taipei Exchanges, "The Fourth Portrait," director Chung Mong-hong's drama about a 10-year-old boy who paints to find himself, is nominated for the TIFF Asian-Middle East Film Award. So, too, are the erotic, photography-themed thriller "Zoom Hunting" by director Cho Li, and the documentary about Taiwanese filmmaker Mark Lee called "Let the Wind Carry Me," from directors Kwan Pun-leung, Chiang Hsiu-chiung.

To the Tokyo Project Gathering, TIFFCOM's forum to support new talent and 28 developing projects, Taiwanese director Gavin Lin brings "The Dog Wanted," produced by Chu Bing, a dog-lover's drama inspired by a spate of documented animal abuse cases in Taiwan in 2009. Also in TPG, is "Pinky Time," a car theft caper from debut Taiwanese director Sean Chen and producer Chen Wei.

On the buyers side at TIFFCOMM, Taiwanese television companies such as The Chinese Television System Culture Enterprise Corp., Joint Entertainment International, Sanlih E-Television and TVOnline International Multimedia will be trolling the market looking for content.

Proving that Taiwan product is saleable overseas, Taipei-based Double Edge Entertainment recently sold genre-bending western "The Treasure Hunter," a December 2009 release starring Taiwanese stars Jay Chou and actress Lin Chi-ling ("Red Cliff") to U.S. indie Asian film distributor Eleven Arts in Los Angeles.

Still, back in Taiwan's struggling-to-revive box office, Monga is the commercial exception, not the industry rule. Young director Tom Lin worries that, under increased commercial pressure, he and his peers could lose the chance to practice their craft.

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"If we go out and make one or two films and they both flop, then it's over. In Taiwan, you don't get a third chance," said Lin, who's trying to find a new way forward. "Taiwan cinema and our industry in general can be very isolated."

"It's going to be a tough battle, but I'm optimistic because lots of young Taiwan directors are trying to grow outside the boundaries of the island," said Lin, director of "Starry Starry Night," a project in development.

Still, most filmmakers -- most artists for that matter -- might be telling a half-truth if they said they didn't care about reaching their own people first before having any influence abroad.

Within the past three years, Taiwanese cinema about Taiwanese subjects has shown its resilience. "Cape No. 7," the story of a struggling band of musicians in the island's provincial south, and then "Monga," have proven that the homegrown audience will come out to support local filmmaking.

Wei Tse-chen's "Cape" grossed $16.7 million in 2008 and "Monga" grossed $9.8 million this year.

"The next big hit in Taiwan will have what these two films have in common -- the Taiwan factor," says producer Huang Liming of Rice Film in Taipei. "'Cape' drew an older crowd pining for the old days in Taiwan and 'Monga' had commercial appeal because it's about the port city where gangsters and prostitutes land from the Mainland."

Notably, no film from Taiwan is in the main competition at TIFF for the Sakura Grand Prix of $50,000, won last year by "Eastern Plays," by director Kamen Kalev of Bulgaria. Meanwhile, there are two Sakura entries from the Mainland, where the government in Beijing claims Taiwan as a part of the People's Republic.

To talk up Taiwan cinema to TIFFCOM guests, "Monga" director Doze will take questions from the audience today in a special event celebrating the cinema of Taiwan in hopes of raising its profile in international business circles.

Huang says that the "Taiwan factor" has indeed caused Hollywood distributors, concerned mainly with minding their own products' entry into the loyal territory's theaters, "to give part of their attention to Taiwan movies."

Veteran film producer and scholar Peggy Chiao, who for 30 years has been one of the driving forces behind the new Taiwanese cinema, says that only with a strong local industry will Taiwan cinema be able to attract the true commercial attention of markets abroad.

"The Taiwanese audience is starving for local films that they can identity with," Chiao told The Hollywood Reporter in May. "What the recent successes show us is that when audiences feel they can deeply associate with the stories, they will support the films."

So, too, will the government, it seems. The Taiwan Government Information Office Motion Picture Affairs Dept. has issued grants to filmmakers since 1989. To encourage commercially successful filmmakers, directors whose films grossed more than $633,000 at the domestic box office are eligible for a subsidy for their next film. After Wei's success with "Cape" he got $3.3 million for "Seediq Bale," the story of the Taiwan people fighting for their own identity against invaders. With a subject like that, the film could well be the next injection of fuel the industry needs.