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The film and television scene in Taiwan is flush. Scores of projects are in production, while local investors — some veterans of the industry, some newcomers from different sectors — are pouring money into new titles even without distributors attached. Taiwanese film and television content creators are eyeing the global market with renewed ambition and placing their bets on international streamers, which bring with them the promise of taking Taiwanese content to the world.
Taiwanese cinema has always had a place on the global stage. The highest-grossing non-English film of all time in the U.S., Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000), was a Taiwan co-production by the Taiwan-born Ang Lee. Auteurs Hou Hsiao-hsien (2015’s The Assassin) and Tsai Ming-liang (2009’s Visage) have been beacons of the art house world since the 1980s and 1990s with major wins at Cannes and Venice. And Taiwanese companies have been active in international film markets, while Taiwanese television and web series have had a strong presence across Chinese-speaking regions.
But the rise of global streamers has provided the territory’s creators with a wider international audience for their high-quality content than ever before. The pan-Asia successes of crime dramas The Victims’ Game (2020) and Light the Night (2021), both on Netflix, were among the many recent wins that have galvanized Taiwanese content creators.
As Taiwan’s domestic box office reverts to being dominated by Hollywood imports after a brief respite in 2020 and the Chinese market across the strait becomes less accessible, the international market is presenting opportunities not only in financing and distribution, but also in terms of more diverse content and genre development. Seasoned producers and a new generation of film and television creators alike are looking at the wider world to boost Taiwan’s cultural reach and influence — while also increasing their audience and generating greater revenue.
“Filmmakers won’t limit themselves to the local market; we hope to reach as many audiences as possible,” says Yeh Jufeng, veteran producer and head of production at Mandarin Vision, whose credits include the dark comedy The Great Buddha+ (2017), picked up by Netflix, and blockbuster romance Our Times (2015), which grossed $84 million across Asia. “Taiwanese films are a part of Chinese-language cinema, so I always say we should have our eyes on the world, [where Chinese speakers are everywhere,] instead of making films behind closed doors,” Yeh adds.
“With the rise of international streaming platforms, we’re seeing a greater diversity and more creativity in Taiwanese content,” adds Hank Tseng, producer of the influential local horror film The Tag-Along (2015), hit medical drama series Wake Up (2015-17), and The Victims’ Game, which was co-produced with Netflix and is currently the only Taiwanese series to be renewed by the streamer. “It is becoming more common for Taiwanese productions to work with international teams and actors, get overseas financing, and even adapt foreign novels and IP. We are learning new ways of storytelling and giving more importance to the experience of overseas audiences — so the projects are different and richer.”
Hong Kong based producer Cora Yim, former head of Chinese-language productions at Fox Networks Group Asia and co-founder of Sixty Percent Productions, has been working in Taiwan since 2017, attracted by Taiwan’s abundance of creative talent keen to try new things, its creative freedom and the low local production costs. “Taiwanese film and television were on track toward a wider global audience even before the international streamers came along,” she says. Yim’s team is currently at work on the upcoming four-part Taiwan Crime Stories, a co-production with Brian Grazer and Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment and Calfilms Asia in Taiwan, which is set for release on Disney+ worldwide in the second half of 2022.
“Television broadcasters have been putting more resources into productions, raising both their budgets and production standards,” Yim explains. “Taiwan Public Television Service [PTS] in particular has played a key role in the last 10 years and is an incubator for talents. It is eager to discover new talent, diversify its contents and give space for creators to tell a story. As a public network, it can also afford a higher budget because of the subsidy from the government.” Recent output reflects this: Some of the biggest Taiwanese series in recent years, in terms of audience numbers and engagement — and sheer scale — were produced by PTS, such as the historical epic Seqalu: Formosa 1867 (2021), in which more than half of the dialogue was in English; supernatural series The Teenage Psychic (2017-19) and crime drama The World Between Us (2019) — and the latter two titles were co-productions with HBO Asia, by which the shows were shown to a broad audience across Asia.
On the theatrical film front, the domestic success of The Tag-Along in 2015 — with its combination of Hollywood-style narrative and uniquely Taiwanese folklore — ushered in a new era of local genre filmmaking, which has easier overseas appeal. The filmmaker responsible for this trend was director and producer Cheng Wei-hao, and he didn’t stop after launching the horror genre in Taiwan. “I have explored different genres with The Tag-Along [horror], The Soul [crime thriller] and Man in Love [romance],” Cheng says. “The way I approach a project is to look at what is lacking in the market — not just locally, but also in Chinese-language regions and even non-Chinese-language regions.”
The Taiwan Creative Content Agency (TAICCA), established in 2019, also is playing an increasingly active role in developing global markets for Taiwan’s film and television content, as well as pushing the industrialization of Taiwanese cinema to build sustainable systems for professionals.
Due to lower budgets — and thus, lower salaries — crewmembers have had to take on multiple responsibilities on productions in the past. This hindered the growth of specialized expertise and professionalism in every position. But with Taiwan’s current production boom spurred by the bigger budgets and the seemingly bottomless content appetites of the platforms, many see encouraging signs of change.
“Taiwanese film and television is on the path to an industrialized stage of development,” adds Cheng. “But it hasn’t quite gotten there yet — compared with Hollywood, China or even Hong Kong, where there used to be a movie star system with guaranteed box office draw. When action films were a mainstay of Hong Kong cinema, even Hollywood recruited their professionals to share what they knew. The quantity of production allowed talent and expertise to grow. From this standpoint, Taiwan isn’t there yet.”
Still, the director is encouraged by the direction and momentum of the industry today. “When I made The Tag-Along, there were not a lot of local professionals experienced in making horror,” he says. “But since then, there has been a great number of horror films produced in Taiwan. When there is quantity, there is the first light of the dawn for industrialization. With the current rise in the number of productions, I think we can become a proper industry — or at least make a big change — in five to 10 years.”
Adds Jin Pai-lunn, producing and screenwriting partner of Cheng on The Soul and the upcoming comedy tentative titled Marry My Dead Body: “Another cause for optimism is, apart from individual investors, a lot of film funds and venture capital for film and television projects have been established in Taiwan. This can support various stages of industrialization and the development of different talents. This can help to boost the quantity [of production].”
One thing film and television content creators in Taiwan agree on is that they are treading the path to success established by South Korea, which is now the biggest exporter of cultural products from Asia — be it K-pop, Korean drama or highbrow commercial cinema like Bong Joon Ho’s multi-Oscar winner Parasite.
“South Korea deserves our respect, and we strive to learn from its industry,” says Tseng. “How it opened international distribution channels and diversified its markets is especially key.”
Adds Yeh, “The film and television policies in South Korea are strongly supported by government funding, including all the policies relating to upstream and downstream, as well as the strategies of the Korea Creative Content Agency [KOCCA]. These are all long-term plans, and even legislation, that Taiwan has not yet been able to introduce. But for our film and television creators, the quality of Korean productions is an inspiration and prompt for us to work toward the highest international standards.”
Taipei Creators Take the “Boys’ Love” Genre International
One genre among Taiwanese productions that has proven especially popular overseas is the BL drama. Known colloquially as “boys’ love,” BL dramas are a combination of Japan’s yaoi subculture, which originated in manga, anime, YA novels and television dramas, and the idol TV dramas that have been the bread and butter of the Taiwanese screen industry for decades. BL dramas, like Japan’s yaoi storytelling, depict homoerotic relationships between young men — but their target audience is straight women moreso than the LGBTQ community. Not only are BL dramas popular in Japan, always home to unique subgenres, but they also thrive in Thailand and, recently, in South Korea.
In Taiwan, the first major milestone for the genre came in 2017 with the release of the HIStory series on the now defunct Taiwanese OTT platform Choco TV. The first season of the show — which comprises three four-episode mini-seasons — proved to be such a success, garnering 3.5 million views in its first three months, that it later aired on terrestrial and cable channels in Taiwan. The cross-border potential of Taiwan’s take on BL storytelling was cemented when HIStory became the first Taiwanese web series to broadcast on Japan’s flagship terrestrial network, Nippon TV.
“Because of its reliance on the Chinese market, Taiwanese television dramas have long been confined to conventional romances,” says Ting Fei Chang, creator and showrunner of the HIStory series, who is also known as the “Godmother of BL dramas” in Taiwan. “When I moved from a television network to new media in 2014, I wanted to create market segmentation and make series that the audience wanted to watch but networks dared not make.” In 2016, Chang conducted her first experiment in pushing local boundaries by creating Happy Together, an idol drama for Line TV, in which a gay couple were secondary characters — but the pair gained instant popularity and the actors behind the parts were even invited to variety shows in mainland China. After she started working for Choco TV, Chang’s screenwriter friends convinced her to forge ahead with real BL dramas.
“Choco TV needed new viewers, but we didn’t have a lot of budget. So we tried making BL dramas, which no one else was making. The secret for BL dramas’ success is to find a team that understands the genre,” she says. BL dramas exist in a fictionalized world where same-sex relationships are universally accepted, and the protagonists encounter no prejudice or discrimination. For this reason, there are no depictions of coming out and the fear, angst or negative reactions that might accompany it, which are often central to LGBTQ stories. “BL dramas are distinctly different from gay dramas; this is an important point,” Chang adds. “I was learning on the job — even the casting was a precise science.”
HIStory marked a turning point for BL dramas in Taiwan by putting BL portrayals front and center, instead of relegating them to secondary characters and largely implied storylines as in idol dramas. Three more seasons followed to increasing popularity, and it was not just a local phenomenon. In addition to Japan, the series aired in Thailand; and while Chinese fans were not able to watch the series without scaling the Great Firewall, a sizable number of them contributed funds to a crowdfunding effort for season two, suggesting to Chang’s team that the show had made an impact there. What surprised Chang the most, though, was finding pirated copies online with crowdsourced subtitles in languages including English, Spanish, German, Thai and Portuguese. On pirate networks, the series was particularly well received in Mexico and Brazil.
“We didn’t think about foreign markets at the time we made the first season. But after it was released, we received a lot of messages from overseas audiences on social media — and the pirated copies on YouTube were subtitled in at least eight languages. That was when we realized there were potential overseas viewers,” Chang adds.
In a way, despite not being rooted in realism, BL dramas are somewhat representative of the culture of Taiwan since it is the only territory in Asia that has legalized same-sex marriage. “From the constitutional interpretation of same-sex marriage in 2015 to the ruling in 2017, the period coincided with the takeoff of the BL dramas in Taiwan. The timeliness boosted our confidence in promoting BL dramas,” explains Chang. “Fiction and reality influenced each other.”
The genre has now become a staple for many OTT and streaming platforms in Taiwan, and even WeTV — the international streaming platform of China’s Tencent — made its first Taiwanese BL drama with 2021’s We Best Love. Taiwan also contributed Papa & Daddy (2021), the first BL drama from Asia that explores child-rearing by a gay couple, to the global LGBTQ streaming platform GagaOOLala.
Chang is now in the process of taking the HIStory series across platforms. With her new venture, as general manager of Koko Entertainment, which is backed by the Taiwan Creative Content Agency, she is shepherding About Youth, a high school BL drama set for release this year, with the distributing platform yet to be announced.
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