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Taiwan’s leadership position in the still-emerging field of virtual reality storytelling has seldom been more evident than in Venice’s 2021 VR competition section. Seven of the total 37 VR projects selected to exhibit in Venice this year are from Taiwan, a record number for a single territory. Taiwanese mixed-media artist Hsin-Chien Huang, who won Venice’s very first best VR experience award in 2017, is back with two works in competition: Samsara, which won the best VR story prize at the Cannes film market’s VR showcase in July, and The Starry Sand Beach, produced together with French artist Nina Barbier.
How exactly has Taiwan, home to just 23 million people and dwarfed by its vastly larger, high-tech neighbors, China (population 1.4 billion) and Japan (120 million), emerged as such a worldwide powerhouse in virtual reality?
Ting Hsiao-ching, chairwoman of the Taiwan Creative Content Agency (TAICCA), a well-funded industry support organization established in June 2019 by Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture, cites several overlapping factors driving the territory’s success in immersive content creation. “Taiwan is the largest semi-conductor producer in the world and a leader in hardware manufacturing, so our creators really embrace technology — they’re not afraid to experiment,” Ting says. She also points to Taiwan’s artistic freedoms as a keen advantage over the vastly larger mainland Chinese creative industry. “Since our democratization started in the late 1980s, we have seen changes throughout society, and that has given a lot of freedom for creativity, so we can tell a lot of different stories — whatever an artist wants.”
Some of Taiwan’s VR projects in Venice this year include: Chou Tung-Yen’s In the Mist, a VR experience touching on gay experience in Taiwan via an exploration of a male sauna; the German-Taiwanese co-production Speak to Awaken Ep.2 KUSUNDA, a voice-driven project about the dormant indigenous Kusunda language from Nepal; The Last Worker, a narrative adventure centered around human struggles in an increasingly automated and dehumanizing world; and The Sick Rose, a journey through a world of raging pandemics, full of frustration but also hope and wonder.
Through a series of grants, TAICCA and other Taiwanese funding bodies have provided much of the monetary support that artists need to produce these daring and time-consuming VR projects, since the immersive storytelling industry still remains in an early stage of commercial development. Five of the projects showing in Venice this year were supported by TAICCA, with two additional contenders backed by the Kaohsiung Film Archive, organizer of Taiwan’s Kaohsiung Film Festival — which also happens to boast a large VR competition section that has nurtured the local industry.
“No other country manifests such a commitment in VR as Taiwan,” says Venice VR Expanded Programmer Michel Reilhac. “We also want to commend the fact that there’s an incredible diversity in styles and genres that have been produced for this year,” he adds.
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter‘s Sept. 3 daily issue at the Venice International Film Festival.
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