Docus big b.o. draw in Taiwan
Genre giving commercial fare a run for the moneyIn Taiwan's film industry, where movies have been strangely polarized into art house fare for elite audiences and coarse comedies for the masses with little quality commercial movies in the middle, documentaries have been invading commercial theaters and selling more tickets than dramatic feature films.
Second-guessing the tastes of audiences is an opaque science in Hollywood, much less the scarcely developed film industry in Taiwan. The surprise wave of feature documentaries in recent years owes its success not to savvy marketing and demographic targeting but rather to filmmakers' passions. This wave is arguably the most important cinema movement since Taiwan's New Wave in the early '80s.
With technological advances, filmmakers can pick up their digicams and film subjects they are enamored with. In fact, two standout examples — "Ocean Fever" and "Let It Be" — were shot on DV and then transferred to 35mm for theatrical release.
This year's documentary darling is "My Football Summer," which just surpassed $4 million Taiwan ($123,000) at the boxoffice. Shot in an effervescent style with vibrant colors, the film traces the journey of an aboriginal junior high school football team that dreams of winning the county football match. With members mostly from low-income households, they forge friendships while balancing their grades and football.
The same inspirational theme is echoed in director Lin Yu-hsien's "Jump Boys," which grossed $3 million Taiwan in 2005. The film focuses on seven elementary school boys' struggles to win the national gymnast medal.
"Ocean Fever" was another docu darling in 2004. The adrenaline-inducing film by Chen Lung-nan focuses on Taiwanese youth who share a communal love of rock and the underground-bands subculture at Taiwan's annual Ocean Music Festival.
However, to dismiss the success of these documentaries as owing to their glossy, optimistic themes would be too swift and facile.
"I think the documentary form is about the celebration of life despite life's troubles," says "Football" director Yang Li-chou.
Just winning the Asia Award at this year's Taiwan International Documentary Festival is "Doctor," which recounts the story of a Chinese-American neurologist who, by treating a Peruvian boy with symptoms of a tumor, slowly unlocks his personal complex about a son who had a similar illness. Veteran commercial director Chung Mong-hon uses stark black-and-white cinematography to convey this story about heartbreak and healing. The film has grossed $2.1 million Taiwan ($64,000) after just one month in release playing on two screens.
"Even if 'Doctor' is a film dealing with the subject matter of death, it's still about the celebration of life," director Chung says. "It's about a new life one earns after a spiritual death."
In 2005, there was "Let It Be," a documentary about the lives of several septuagenarian rice farmers and how they respect the Earth and live with the most basic means in an era of industrialization. Commissioned by public television and having had several airings on TV, the acclaimed film then moved into commercial theaters. So what became of this TV-to-theater documentary, a DV-shot film with a $500,000 Taiwan budget? It turned into a $6 million Taiwan blockbuster.
Perhaps the landmark documentary is director Wu Yi-feng's "Life" (2004), which traces the lives of various survivors after Taiwan's catastrophic 921 Earthquake in 1999. Disillusioned by a year of sound-bite TV coverage, Wu decided to stay in the quake center in the town of Chi Chi to live, observe and interact with survivors.
With good word-of-mouth, "Life," miraculously won the title of domestic film champion in Taiwan in 2004 with a boxoffice take topping $10 million Taiwan.
Also in 2004, two documentaries about music duked it out in theaters. "Viva Tonal," about the evolution of pop music during the past century in Taiwan, and "Burning Dream," about today's youth going to Shanghai to learn the tap dance and jazz of Gene Kelly's era, both passed the $1 million Taiwan mark.
So how do documentaries, which are often pigeonholed as too austere or boring, make it to the big league? Some industry observers chalk it up to passionate storytelling and flexible cinematic styles.
"I spent a decade making serious documentaries that go right to the core of gritty reality — films that make audiences feel like committing suicide after viewing," director Yang explains. "With 'Football,' I try the approach of using the blue sky, bright sunshine to illustrate these kids' passion for football underneath the pressure of life. I aim to deliver messages, provide some fun moments without sugarcoating the reality."
Kathy Liu, marketing manager at Serenity Entertainment, which released "Football," says: "When handling a documentary, we try to market the film without compromising its integrity. A movie is made to be seen. We want the audiences to enjoy the entertainment elements so the morality questions can be taken home by the audience."