Even with box office growth in China leveling off last year, there’s every reason to believe a movie like Taiwan’s The Gangster’s Daughter could find an audience there. Budgeted at $1 million and starring Hou Hsiao-Hsien regular Jack Kao, the new movie opened in Taipei on March 10 in 25 theaters. But despite its star power and promising reviews, its chances in the massive mainland Chinese market remain slim.
Kao stars as Keigo, a fading Taipei gangster who takes custody of his estranged teenage daughter, Shaowu (Ally Chiu), who’s been living on Kinmen Island, a Taiwanese county lying closer to China than to Taiwan. With her regional accent and rural background, Shaowu finds the big city an uncomfortable fit, but eventually makes friends and assimilates in her new surroundings.
Her struggle mirrors a greater challenge for Taiwan’s film industry as filmmakers and performers face greater scrutiny over perceived political affiliations. Kao has successfully built a career in both countries, appearing in John Woo’s The Crossing, and often working in Hong Kong as well. But last summer, veteran Taiwanese actor Leon Dai was fired from the Chinese movie No Other Love because he was believed to be a supporter of Taiwanese independence. In early 2016, K-Pop singer Chou Tzu-Yu was compelled to make a public apology after waving a Taiwanese flag while appearing on a South Korean talk show. More recently, filmmaker Chen Yu-Hsun’s Chinese New Year movie, The Village of No Return, was targeted by internet trolls because he was perceived as an advocate for Taiwanese independence.
“When I make a co-production I need to be very clear in my head which major market I am targeting,” says Kao’s agent Terence Chang, producer of blockbusters like Red Cliff and, in the U.S., Face/Off. “Unlike films that I made 20 years ago, they don’t travel anymore because the younger generation these days is very different. Films made in Hong Kong are very specific for Hong Kong people. Similarly, The Gangster’s Daughter is a lovely little film, but it doesn’t resonate with people from territories outside Taiwan.”
For a Taiwanese film to cross over to China, it needs to be broader in scope, a catch-22 that could limit its appeal at home where tepid sales would effectively kill its chances abroad. In 2015, the romantic comedy Our Times successfully made the leap, earning $50 million in China, and the 2011 romance You Are the Apple of My Eye took $11 million, but other movies that struck gold in Taiwan, like 2011’s Seediq Bale, fizzled on the mainland.
“Taiwanese cinema is strong, but we don’t have enough audience. So the money in China is very appealing,” says Kao, who has worked in both countries. Like many in Taiwan, he wonders if it might be wiser to gamble on movies that have greater appeal in China.
As Chen considers her next film, she too is thinking in broader terms. “I want to make a good film that entertains people; that comes first,” she says. “I don’t really think about national identity in China and Taiwan. How to make a film that’s universal, that’s what I want to do.”