Filmmakers shine as China relations improve

HONG KONG — With a serious pavilion presence, a flurry of parties and events and an A-list group of biz players, Taiwan’s profile was especially high at Filmart in Hong Kong, and the self-ruled island was keen to use the fest as a platform to advertise its resurgent biz.

Taiwan, which has given the world outstanding helmers such as Hou Hsiao-hsien, the late Edward Yang and, of course, Ang Lee, has been through a rough patch, with the rise of the Mainland China market leading to a decline in Taiwanese cinema.

However, the last two years have seen a resurgence.

“In Taiwan two years ago it was a very bad time for the industry. From 200 films per year, it dropped to 20,” said Taiwanese producer Hsu Li-Kong, one of the leading lights in the biz, who brought Ang Lee to the world by backing “The Wedding Banquet” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Hsu has just teamed up with Mainland China’s Taihe Film and TV for the co-production “Joyful Reunion,” the long-awaited sequel to “Eat Drink Man Woman” that is shooting in Taipei and Hangzhou in eastern China.

“This year we are seeing heroes emerging. We need to understand the common element that is welcomed by the global audience,” said Hsu.

One of the heroes he refers to is Wei Te-sheng, whose 2008 movie “Cape No.7″ was pivotal in forging a turnaround for Taiwanese cinema.

“Cape,” a pic about the romance between a Japanese teacher and a Taiwanese woman in the 1940s, when the island was occupied by Japan, raked in more than $17 million in B.O., Taiwan’s third highest grossing movie.

Now everyone is watching his latest project to see what happens.

“Seediq Bale” portrays the Wushe Incident, a 1930 uprising by aboriginal Seediq warriors against the Japanese when Taiwan was colonized.

With a production budget of $24 million (NT$700 m), it’s the biggest-budgeted film in Taiwanese history. Due for release in September, the pic is produced by John Woo, and stars Taiwan’s Vivian Hsu among others. The plan is to screen the 4.5-hour pic as two films in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

“This is the biggest production in Taiwanese history. A lot of people are waiting to see the reception for the movie. A lot depends on this movie,” said Wei in an interview at Filmart.

“Taiwanese filmmakers are trying to make bigger-scale films. What we learned is that we can get more money for making more commercial films.

The key is to focus on success in Taiwan first, as a foundation, then expand,” said Wei.

Mainland China and Taiwan have been fierce rivals since they split after the Chinese civil war in 1949, when the losing Kuomintang forces under Chiang Kai-shek fled to the island. However, under President Ma Ying-jeou, relations have improved dramatically in recent years, and this has also led to great improvements across the Strait of Taiwan in the film biz. Now, many Taiwanese stars are regular features in Chinese movies.

Emily Liu is director of “Great Wall My Love” which has just finished post-production and was produced by Hsu Li-kong.

The pic, a road movie about a Taiwanese girl who goes to the Mainland to track down her mother’s first love, is one of the first to deal with the Taiwan-China relationship, and she said it is a movie that could not be made while relations between Mainland China and Taiwan were tense.

“The film is trying to portray a positive potential,” she said of the co-production, which will now go through the import process and censorship and then be shown in China as a local film.

Lee Tain Dow, who teaches at the University of Shih Chien in Taipei, says that in order for the recovery in Taiwanese cinema to be more than just a flash in the pan, Taiwan needs to look to the China market.

“Chinese-language film includes Hong Kong and Taiwan, but most of the activity is in Mainland China. This is where we need to concentrate,” said Lee.

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