The Winner of Best Director Weeps: Taiwan's Films Remain in the Pits
China News editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
December 4, 2009
To see a movie but experience a sour feeling in the pit of one's stomach, is probably an experience unique to Taiwan's movie audiences. Why? One reason is that the movies themselves are downers. But more importantly, these movies reflect the ups and downs of Taiwan's film industry. As we watch them, it is truly difficult to suppress our tears. Leon Dai, this year's Golden Horse Award winner for Best Director, directed "No Puedo Vivir Sin Ti," or “I Cannot Live Without You.” The film won several major awards, yet he wept so hard he could no longer speak. His reaction was eloquent testimony to how low the state of film on Taiwan has descended.
The depressed state of Taiwan's film industry is not something that happened overnight. Countless internal and external shocks mired Taiwan's film industry in its current quagmire. Take "I Cannot Live Without You," for example. It was the most-talked about film this year, and won awards for best feature film. The production budget was a mere six million dollars. It can only be described as a low budget film. Leon Dai did triple duty as director, screenwriter, and film editor. He holed up in his room for three months, editing this deeply moving film. Leon Dai's tears were a clear expression of the hardships he endured and the pain he suppressed during the film's production.
Six million dollars is not enough to cover the cost of scenery in a typical commercial film. Take the sixth installment of the Harry Potter series, for example. Production costs reached 250 million USD. A budget of seven or eight billion NTD for a film is unthinkable on Taiwan. Leave aside comparisons with big budget European and American films for the moment. Take a look at "Wind," which was also nominated or a Golden Horse Award. The production cost for "Wind" was 40 million RMB. That is approximately 200 to 400 million NTD. The film "Nanjing. Nanjing" cost 70 million RMB. The film "The Founding of a Republic," is an account of political events on Mainland China over the past 60 years. Its budget was considered modest, 30 million RMB, but only because cast members waived their fees.
Last year's Golden Horse Award winner "Cape No. 7" was a hit on Taiwan. Audiences talked about it all year. This film incurred what is considered a relatively high production cost, 45 million NTD. The popularity of Cape No. 7 was a result of everyone being caught up in a wave of hope. They decided that Taiwan's film had finally bottomed out and was about to experience a rebirth. But when the director of Cape No. 7 attempted to make the film he had dreamed of for years, "Seediq Bale - A Real Man," he found himself back in the same predicament. The government provided grants, but he was still unable to cover endlessly rising production costs.
Are filmmakers on Taiwan destined to be lonely for an eternity? Taiwan's film industry once set trends in Asia. But somewhere along the way, Taiwan's film industry lost its lead over Hong Kong. Today, even Mainland China's film industry environment and film quality have caught up. Take "Cars" for example. It also contained powerful social criticism. But it made people laugh until they cried. It was rich in cinematic content. It was highly entertaining. The film industry is experiencing a downturn. Taiwan no longer produces any big stars. The stars on the red carpet at the Golden Horse Awards are either Mainland stars or Hong Kong stars.
The film "I Cannot Live Without You," won numerous awards. It was a film adaptation of a story torn from the social columns, involving real people and real events. It blasted the mentality of government bureaucrats who have provoked public dissatisfaction. But the vast majority of civil servants refused to see it. After it won several film awards, the Ministry of the Interior held a drawing for free tickets to the film. It hoped to make civil servants better understand that little problems for the people, are big problems for the government. But this provoked dissatisfaction among lower echelon civil servants. They resented the intrusion on their free time. Not only were they required to see the film, they had to write a report afterwards. They considered it a booby prize. When even civil servants are reluctant to see a film about them, one can easily imagine how difficult it is to fill theater seats on Taiwan.
From the Chen administration to the Ma administration, the government has attempted to alleviate the plight of the film industry. The promoter of film industry policy has long been the Government Information Office. But it has never had much success. After all, government budgets are limited. The government cannot possibly dedicate all its resources to rescuing a single industry. Particularly the film industry, where the risks are enormous, and the result of bad investments is hard-earned taxpayer dollars down the drain. Besides the risk of the government losing bundles of money, there is the risk of sweetheart deals favoring special interests. Filmmakers must first establish a track record, starting with large and small film festivals. Only then may they receive government assistance. But frankly, it is always easy to cheer the winners. It is always harder to rescue the dying. Audiences on Taiwan are accustomed to Hollywood films. Blockbusters feature big name casts, eye-popping scenery, and extravagant production values. Gaining audience favor is by no means easy. Under the circumstances, Taiwan's low and medium budget productions will be a hard sell in theaters. It would be better to concentrate on made for television films. First use television to create a word of mouth reputation. Win back lost viewers. Otherwise, every film made is going to lose money. No filmmaker can survive that way.
Taiwan's films were once popular throughout Asia. Today however they are unable to appeal to audiences outside the island. Films are not merely the artistic expressions of an individual director. A commercial film is not an art film with a cult following, or even an experimental film. When a director transforms his dreams into films, they must be able to move peoples' hearts. Once the product has been created, it must be effectively promoted through appropriate marketing. Only then can one establish a virtuous circle of producing and promoting quality films. To rely on the government or filmmakers alone is not enough.