Taipei Day

Despite years of Hollywood dominance, Taiwan's burgeoning film sector is beginning to find its own unique voice

As veteran film producer Jennifer Jao tells it, Taiwan missed a huge opportunity in November 2005 when Tom Cruise came to Taipei looking for a location for "Mission: Impossible III" but left empty handed.

Cruise and company ran aground in their efforts to secure permission to shoot action scenes at Taipei 101 -- then the world's tallest skyscraper. "The building was run by a private company, which had no official contact for this sort of thing. There were too many questions and too many problems," Jao recalls. "The producers packed up and left before we knew what had happened."

Jao says it wasn't until months later that she and others in Taiwan's struggling film industry realized that Shanghai had won out as the Hollywood blockbuster's Asian city of choice, employing hundreds of Chinese and providing a ripe cross-cultural working exchange.

Taiwan would not repeat the mistake, and Taipei's mayor, Hau Lung-pin, quickly sent Jao and a team to New York to study how the Big Apple has made big bucks from movie making over the years.

The resulting report was the genesis of the Taipei Film Commission, established in January 2008 under the direction of Jao, formerly the head of overseas management for the Central Motion Pictures Corp., one of Taiwan's biggest film production houses.

With a fourfold mission to support production and co-production in Taipei, to promote Taiwanese films worldwide, to train and educate local filmmakers and, finally, to grow a film fund to back the industry's next generation, the TFC has its work cut out for it.

Despite the record-breaking boxoffice success of director Wei Te-Sheng's ensemble comedy "Cape No. 7" last year, Taiwan's cumulative 2008 ticket sales were about $73 million, a drop from the $78.5 million grossed in 1999.

Add this slump to the diligent savings habits of many Asian consumers, the global financial crisis and Taiwan's decades-long love affair with Hollywood movies, and it would appear that local filmmakers are fighting an uphill battle.

"A whole generation identifies with Hollywood films and is not used to watching films with people with dark hair and dark eyes, speaking their own language," Jao says. "It's going to take at least another five to 10 (years) to break the habit."

The buzz around "Cape No. 7" was so intense that Bobby Sheng, CEO of production company Double Edge Entertainment, hopes to ride the wave of interest in Taiwan by expanding into international sales to bring the best films Taiwan has to offer to the world. But Sheng, a Berkeley alumnus who grew up in Orange County, Calif., still puts faith in the Hollywood system for the biggest returns. As such, he's worked with the Taiwan government to establish a 20% film tax rebate program to attract foreign film investment to the country.

"This year we're really focused on co-productions with Hollywood," says Sheng, who last year executive produced the Diane English comedy "The Women," with Meg Ryan and Annette Bening. He then tried but failed to bring Hong Kong director Gordon Chan's video game-based "King of the Fighters," starring Maggie Q, to Taiwan.

Perhaps a next attempt at luring a big overseas production to Taiwan will be helped by the promise that starting this year the Taipei government is providing $1 million in subsidies to shoot a movie in their city. Sheng, for one, hopes this will help entice Hollywood partners to join Double Edge in making "suspense and action films, English-speaking movies over Asian concepts."

"We read 300-400 Taiwan scripts last year and most of them still look like (films made by art house directors) Tsai Ming-liang and Hou Hsiao-hsien -- who are great artists, by the way -- but we now have to build commercial films," he says.

In Taiwan, a local film is considered a hit if it earns NT$5 million -- that's New Taiwan Dollars, the island's currency -- at the boxoffice. This is about $143,000, or, Sheng says, "equivalent to a U.S. $30 million take in Hollywood. But after marketing, very few films are making any money at all. We're working with the (Government Information Office) to get the message out there that you have to focus on getting to the buyers, making films for a broader audience."

As such, Double Edge is acting as sales agent for several production companies and hoping the GIO will support others -- even would-be competitors -- in this move to make the business more sophisticated.

While the home audience thrills at the work of such local heroes as director Wei, producer Michelle Yeh, co-founder of Three Dots Entertainment, says that like other smallish Asian markets, expanding into the major market next door would be a sound economic decision to support the industry's future. Namely, Taiwan could benefit from a closer relationship with China, Yeh says.

Despite historic tensions, China and Taiwan -- the island China has called a renegade province for the past 60 years -- do still share a common language, thus rendering subtitles unnecessary. And these days, leaders on the Mainland who are typically chilly to the self-governed island have begun to warm to Taipei since a new pro-Beijing government won elections last year.

"It's not always the most popular stance in Taiwan, but I believe China is where the future lies," Yeh says.

Yeh, who travels to China regularly, has helped Three Dots produce two films with Chinese partners during the past few years. "Invitation Only," billed as Taiwan's first horror film, is by 25-year-old first-time director Kevin Ko. Despite its indie appeal, the film will be released April 10 through Warner Bros. in Taiwan, a function, Yeh says, of the lasting power of the majors. (Unlike China, Chinese Taipei, as Taiwan is also known, has not limited its film imports since acceding to the World Trade Organization.)

Yeh says the China-Taiwan co-production "My DNA Says I Love You" was a good learning experience, adding that the romantic comedy about women scientists who manipulate their DNA to find their perfect love match did better in China for the China Film Group and China Warner Film HG than it did in Taiwan for Three Dots.

"It's hard to balance the taste of the audience on both sides of the (Taiwan) Strait," Yeh says. "It's tough to compare lifestyles in Taiwan, Hong Kong and China. The audiences react to the details."

Yeh hopes a second China co-production attempt -- "Snowfall in Taipei," by veteran Chinese director Huo Jianxi -- will prove a broader success. Just finished at the Lunar New Year, Three Dots worked with veteran Hong Kong producer Jeffrey Chan, now based in Beijing, where they both collaborated with Poly Bona.

"Hong Kong used to be Hollywood East, the center of Asian filmmaking, with the technical know-how and a pool of talent," Yeh says. "I hope that Taiwan filmmakers can learn from the experts in the Hong Kong film industry. Hong Kong had a golden age in the 1980s and '90s, but now China's got the big movie machine. Taiwan, well, we have to catch up."
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