Taiwan films reach out to Asia and beyond

TAIPEI - After a slump of over a decade, Taiwan's home-grown films are not only sweeping box offices at home but winning awards and hit status overseas thanks to a new cohort of filmmakers.

Box office revenues for local films as of mid-November had already set a new record of Tw$1.5 billion (S$65 million) - triple the 2010 full-year figure, and up a staggering 200-fold from 2001.

Once best known for its arthouse films, the island has recently produced blockbusters with broad appeal thanks to themes that resonate with large swathes of the public.

"Monga", which topped the local box office in 2010 and was screened at the Berlin film festival, portrays a brotherhood of five boys and touches on social issues such as gang violence and teenage bullying.

This year's hit "Night Market Hero" depicts street vendors standing up against ruthless developers, while "Jump Ashin" tells the true story of a struggling gymnast-turned-coach.

"Previous directors tackled profound issues such as destiny and history - issues that seemed distant to many," said influential film critic Steven Tu. "The new generation of directors address current Taiwan issues and sentiments that strike a chord with the audience."

Tu, who is also the curator of the Taipei film festival, noted that the number of productions has picked up, with a new movie released as often as every two weeks, up from every three or four months a few years ago.

"In the past some directors might only get one shot at making a movie. Now the market is bustling and new investors are coming in, so directors and actors can move from one production to the next at a faster rate," he said.

Taiwan's premier film event the Golden Horse awards, handed out on Saturday, saw a record submission of 182 films, which organisers said reflected the renaissance of Chinese-language film and the island's rising cinematic clout.

The biggest surprise this year was arguably the teen romance "You are the Apple of My Eye", which has topped box offices in Taiwan and Hong Kong and generated buzz in Southeast Asia.

The movie, which grossed Tw$400 million in Taiwan, marked the directorial debut of popular novelist Giddens - the pen name of local author Ko Ching-teng - and is based on his personal story of love and friendship.

"I like the movie because it is realistic, funny, and touching," said Sam Lau, a 16-year-old Hong Konger who saw it with 30 classmates after school this month.

"Many students at my age want to start dating and it is what we often talk about, so we can easily relate to the movie," he said.

Giddens said he was overjoyed by the film's success in Hong Kong, where it had raked in about $7 million as of November 20 and is poised to become the territory's best-selling Chinese-language film this year.

"I truthfully and sincerely shot the story of my youth and I think that's why people from different places find it moving," he told AFP.

Giddens said he now "faces pressure every day" to produce his next work, but intends to take time to write a brand-new script to shoot, as he sees filmmaking as primarily about "seeking happiness and self-fulfilment".

Taiwanese films have also won critical acclaim overseas, with nearly 20 titles scooping various awards at festivals in Asia, the United States, Europe and South America this year, according to the Government Information Office.

Director Wei Te-sheng - who holds the local box-office record of Tw$530 million for his 2008 romance "Cape No. 7" - has outdone himself with the epic "Seediq Bale", about aboriginal hunters battling Japanese colonial power in the 1930s.

The film drew attention abroad as a contender for the prestigious Golden Lion award at the Venice film festival earlier this year.

It is scheduled to be released in the United States in February, and rights have been sold to Australia and New Zealand as well as to European and South American countries.

But it remains to be seen how much reach outside Asia the new wave of Taiwanese films will have.

Giddens is cautiously optimistic: his agent is expected to close a deal soon for the sale of his movie to Europe and the United States.

"In the east, love is more ambiguous, and one might not dare to ask or take action for the object of his affections," he said.

"(But) even though we have different ways of expressing them, I think feelings and emotions can be understood."