Asian biz aims for foothold in China

Taiwan steps into Filmart spotlight

HONG KONG — Taiwan is looking to raise its profile in the Asian film biz, and used Filmart as its platform, taking a large pavilion, hosting a flurry of parties and events and an A-list group of players advertise its resurgent biz.

This year’s Filmart has nearly 600 exhibitors from more than 20 countries and regions, and featured more screenings, preems, seminars, special events and networking opportunities than ever. In all, Hong Kong auds could see 335 pics from 56 countries in venues around the city through April 5, of which 59 are world, international or Asian premieres.

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 its comeback.

“In Taiwan, two years ago it was a very bad time for the industry. From 200 films per year, it dropped to 20,” says Taiwanese producer Hsu Li-Kong, who brought Ang Lee to the world by backing “The Wedding Banquet” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

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Hsu recently teamed 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,” says 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,” which follows 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.

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, 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. The plan is to screen the four-and-a-half-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,” says Wei. “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,” Wei adds.

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 current 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. She says 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 says 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 U of Shih Chien in Taipei, says that in order for the Taiwanese cinema to truly re-establish iteself, 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,” says Lee.

China is the territory generating the most buzz, with lots of talk about the number of screens being built on the Mainland, and with many daring to hope that the Chinese government will do something about its piracy problem.

In 2009, eight of the top 10 box office hits in China were co-productions. That co-production number grew in 2010 to 12 of 15 B.O. winners.

Chinese B.O. surged 64% last year over 2009, passing the $1.5 billion mark, and two of the year’s biggest hits — “Aftershock” and “Let the Bullets Fly” — were made with a mix of Chinese and international coin.

However, a recent reminder of how difficult the Chinese market can be came when China missed a March 19 deadline to comply with a World Trade Organization ruling against restrictions on foreign companies distributing copyrighted goods like books, newspapers, films, DVDs and music.

China’s distribution quota of approximately 20 foreign movies on a revenue-sharing basis does not apply to Hong Kong, and the territory has thrived because of its close links to the Mainland Chinese market.

Taiwan’s Hsu says the Chinese-language market is on the brink of great things, and the key is co-production.

If Taiwanese producers are looking for an international market, they can expand their Mandarin-language offerings, Hsu says. “We can do co-productions with the Mainland because the China market is very big,” he adds.

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