Gay comedy is change of pace for local pix

Taiwanese film attracts auds away from tentpoles

TAIPEI — Take one virginal teenager looking for true love, a self-proclaimed and unrepentant bachelor and some colorful best friends — and then make them all gay and you get “Formula 17,” the genre- and gender-bending romantic comedy that bowed April 2 to boffo numbers.

Pic is the first effort from shingle Three Dots Entertainment, topped by Michelle Yeh and producing partner Aileen Li.

Yeh hopes “Formula 17” will be the first of many modestly budgeted projects that — with the right combination of storytelling and marketing — will attract audiences back to local fare.

According to early estimates, the $150,000 “Formula 17” has already minted $30,000 from just four screens. If that figure holds up, it reps one of the largest weekend openings for a locally produced project.

“The audience for Taiwanese pictures is there,” Yeh insists. “We just have to make the movies they want to see.”

Yeh credits “Formula 17’s” playability to a strong marketing campaign that tapped into the youth audience. The romancer playfully tweaks convention in a way that appeals to all ages and sexual persuasions.

Yeh is quick to point out that “Formula 17” broke free of its niche gay audience and attracted a broader mainstream crowd. With those demographics on their side, Yeh says, local pics have a fighting chance against Hollywood tentpoles. Last year, Taiwanese productions accounted for less than 1% of total B.O.

“Right now, Taiwanese films lack variety,” Yeh says. “They’re mostly known for depressing storylines and long running times. Audiences obviously don’t respond to this, and they’re looking for more choices that aren’t there yet.”

Yeh adds that “Formula 17” presents a more optimistic view of the world and gives audiences a glimpse of Taipei they rarely see onscreen. This is, as Yeh jokingly notes, a “city of no sadness.” That’s a not-so-subtle reference to vet Taiwanese helmer Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “City of Sadness,” a brooding, two-hour-plus drama that is perhaps the island’s most famous picture and one that best epitomizes modern Taiwanese cinema.

Helmed by tyro 23-year-old director Chen Yin-jung, “Formula 17” rejects the long take and stationary camera popular with many of the island’s established filmmakers and opts for a roving camera, quick editing and the occasional gross-out gag.

The young cast of mostly unknowns play exclusively gay characters. Not a single straight — or, for that matter, female — character appears in the breezy 90-minute romancer.

“Formula 17” ultimately plays a part in Yeh and Li’s vision to bring “genre-driven” projects to market. They have a horror pic in the works and hope to produce at least two films a year, although Yeh acknowledges this is a lofty goal given the current state of the island’s industry.

Yeh also concedes that as of now, a Taiwanese film has no hope of recouping costs at the local box office alone. Ancillary and international markets remain the key to profitability. In this regard, recognizable genres open doors abroad.

“Genres have rules and are a kind of universal language,” Yeh explains. “So it’s easier to market a romantic comedy or a horror film as opposed to a ‘Taiwanese’ film.”

She views Three Dots’ approach as better than the current one taken by most Taiwanese films, which usually travel the film fest circuit, win awards and then play to empty theaters back home and niche markets abroad.

“Taiwan doesn’t lack talent, and we certainly aren’t short of capital,” Yeh says. “What we lack is a strong infrastructure and the right business model.”

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