Taiwan saying 'Yes we can'

Taiwan's traditionally insular film sector sets its sights on China

Three factors have come together to give the filmmakers of Taiwan -- birthplace of Ang Lee, high-tech workshop of the world and cultural oasis in a region often associated with wanton commercialism -- a unique opportunity to join the filmmaking mainstream. How it takes its chances remain to be seen.

For the first time ever, the island's movie industry is being given a real means to access the huge and fast-growing mainland China market. For decades this has been blocked by political factors that limited Taiwanese and Chinese in working together and prevented Taiwanese from selling their movies into China. Now, with a president who is open to working with Beijing, Taiwanese filmmakers are actively being wooed from across the Straits.

At the same time, Taiwan's government seems to be becoming more serious about supporting its local industry with cash and other incentives. There are even plans to move film support and regulation out of the Government Information Office into the orbit of the ministry of culture -- alongside TV animation and music -- by 2011.

Third, Taiwanese filmmakers have had their own "Yes, we can" moment. Last year, "Cape No. 7," a modest melodrama with musical interludes, broke records as the biggest Taiwanese film of all time and overtook "Titanic" to become the highest grossing film on Taiwanese soil. In hitting $13.8 million, it also bust the old paradigm that seemed to dictate that all Taiwanese films have to be either low-budget dramas full of angst and identity crises or high-end art house movies financed by Europeans and playing exclusively on the international festival circuit.

Instead "Cape" celebrated rural Taiwan, the common man and even the not-so-long-ago days as a Japanese colony. It also became the first predominantly Taiwanese film in ages to get a theatrical release in China, where it did a very respectable $2.9 million at the boxoffice.

Discussions of how Taiwan can up its cinematic game and participate in China's boxoffice gold rush dominated the debate at the recent Taipei Film Festival in the Taiwanese capital. In particular, there were calls for the pooling of Taiwan's artistic skills with Hong Kong's commercial smarts, while others pointed to co-productions with mainland China as the way forward.

That is a big step for Taiwan. "Taiwan was working alone in the past," says Frank Chen, director of the Government Information Office. "We are more used to working with Europe, Sweden, than China."

In a sign that film development is serious stuff, the mayor of Taipei city, Hau Lung-bin, has chosen personally to head the recently launched Taipei Film Commission.

But the problem is a particularly tricky one for Taiwan. It is territory which sees itself as a sovereign state, but which China has traditionally regarded as a rebel province that will one day be brought to heel. However, co-production discussions at the June Shanghai festival focused so completely on relations within "Greater China" (meaning Chinese-speaking places such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia) that observers could be forgiven for forgetting the existence of the rest of the world. China, it seems, is ready for Taiwan to join it.

That was also the message that emerged from a Cross Straits forum in Changsha, China involving the National Committee of the Chinese People and the Kuomintang, the nationalist party which rules Taiwan.

Cai Wu, China's minister of culture, was quoted as saying that Taiwanese firms will be allowed to run performance venues in China through ventures with local companies or by funding venues themselves. Taiwanese entertainment agencies will also be allowed to set up branches on the mainland. Tian Jin deputy director of China's State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, said Taiwanese cable-television networks will also be able to provide information services in Fujian Province.

In August, Taiwan loosened its own restrictions on the number of Chinese actors who can appear in Taiwanese movies or Taiwanese-qualifying co-productions. Chinese can now account for up to a third of the cast, as opposed to just two actors per film.

The idea is to help the growing flow of co-productions between Taiwan and China work more to Taiwan's benefit. Of the 10 made in the past two years, many have chosen to shoot in China to accommodate more Chinese onscreen talent. The GIO hopes its move will allow more of the co-productions to shoot in Taiwan and do post-production at the island's many facilities.

Taiwan's producers are clamoring for a piece of the mainland action. But after decades of relative isolation, the Taiwanese movie sector has evolved in a peculiar way.

In theaters, Hollywood movies have all but obliterated other genres. Although Taiwan and China share a common language in Mandarin Chinese, most mainland films have not been to the taste of refined Taiwanese, and Chinese films, anyway, are subject to an import quota. Additionally, while local filmmakers have flourished as auteurs on the foreign festival circuit, they have shunned commercial genres. Indeed, the territory only registered its first genuine home-grown blockbuster last year with "Cape No. 7," a nostalgic melodrama.

More commercial themes, such as genre films, are now being explored by companies like Michelle Yeh's Three Dots Entertainment, producer of the horror outing"The Heirloom," the slasher picture "Invitation Only" and the comedy "My DNA Says I Love You."

Chang Hong Prods. is now readying Kevin Chu-directed "Treasure Hunter," a vehicle for two of Taiwan's most potent cultural exports, Mandopop megastar Jay Chou and supermodel Lin Chi-ling, to do big business in China. Lin made her film debut as the love interest in John Woo's "Red Cliff," while mop-headed and multitalented Chou starred in "Kung Fu Dunk," a previous Taiwan-Hong-Kong-China co-production that netted over RMB100 million ($14 million) in China, and next stars as Kato in Columbia Pictures' "The Green Hornet."

Although both China and Taiwan seem keen on the current Cross-Straits rapprochement, they may have different motives.

"Taiwan's entertainment industry is targeting the mainland because they consider it as a potential market to earn money," says Andrew Yang, secretary-general of the Taipei-based Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies. "Many Chinese authorities may see the development as an opportunity to spread Beijing's influence."