Written by Daw-Ming Lee
By the end of the 1970s Taiwan audience was antipathetic to the unimaginative remakes or copies of “national policy films,” martial arts swordplay wuxia pian, and kung fu films, as well as romantic Chiungyao films and melodramatic wenyi pian, causing a significant decline at the box office. It was against such a sluggish economic environment that a fresh group of young writers and directors began to make different and original films. Before the CMPC (Central Motion Picture Corporation) implemented its “newcomer policy” in 1982, there were already many “new” films made by “new” directors, such as Lin Ching-chieh’s “campus films” about high school students, as well as Hou Hsiao-hsien’s and Chen Kun-hou’s light musical-romance films. However, the timing of these films was premature. The box office needed a major studio like the CMPC to create an impact.
Edward Yang, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Ko I-cheng, Chang Yi, and Wan Jen, among other new directors, came right after In Our Time (1982) and The Sandwich Man (1983) were shown theatrically. Their emergence must be credited to the CMPC’s General Manager Ming Chi, as well as to Hsiao Yeh and Wu Nian-jen, writers who became scriptwriters and film developers at the studio. Most films made by Taiwan New Cinema (TNC) directors were successful, both critically and commercially, from 1982 to 1984. After 1985, when many of their films did not do well, such as Edward Yang’s Taipei Story (1985), critical voices against Taiwan New Cinema started to appear in the press, and such critics gradually formed an alliance with the traditional film industry (“old” cinema). The conflict between filmmakers and critics who supported and opposed the TNC extended from newspapers and journals to the jury meetings at the 1985 Golden Horse Awards. Contrary to the animosity shown against Taiwan New Cinema films in Taiwan, international film festivals in Europe and North America began to celebrate the TNC films, especially those by Hou and Yang, which won numerous awards beginning in 1986. Facing the unfriendly press and film critics, discrimination from the local film industry, and an apathetic government, the TNC filmmakers and their supporters finally issued the “Taiwan New Cinema Manifesto” in 1987, criticizing the government, press, and certain film critics.
The Manifesto further antagonized the film industry and the press, forcing the TNC directors to fund their own films from non-traditional sources, including foreign ones. Some considered the issuing of the Manifesto the official end of Taiwan New Cinema. From then on, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang, as well as Tsai Ming-liang and Ang Lee, among other Taiwan directors, were recognized throughout the world as film masters, and most of their films, though failing in the domestic market, succeeded, at least critically, in the international art film market. “Commercial” cinema and “art” cinema became two segregated camps in Taiwan since the mid-1980s, and this continued for two decades until the emergence of a new generation of filmmakers in mid-2000s. The attention that Hou, Yang, and other young directors and their films that followed them, attracted in international film festivals was considered the best publicity for the internationally secluded ROC government.
After the mid-1990s, the number of guopian (or “films domestically made in Taiwan”) shown in the local film market, and their box-office, plunged quickly. In 1997, there were 18. By 2001, the number of guopian dropped to nine, a record low. Since then, the number has fluctuated between 16 and 27. In the worst case, the total gross of all nine domestic production in Taipei in 2001 was NT$2.86 million (less than US$85,000), even worse than that of a rerun of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). The market share for guopian in Taipei that year was only 0.125 percent, the rock bottom in history. It took another six years for the situation to change for the better.
Conditions for making films in Taiwan got better in the late 2000s. In 2008, Wei Te-sheng’s Cape No. 7 (2008) took everyone by surprise and grossed NT$530 million (US$16 million) in Taiwan, the second-highest Taiwan box-office in history at the time, ranking only behind Titanic (dir. James Cameron, 1997). Since then, several Taiwan films by young directors were able to succeed commercially, thus bringing hope to the film industry that Taiwan cinema is finally on the rise. The number of Taiwan productions is estimated to be in the vicinity of 50 in 2011. The total box-office of some 30 Taiwan productions screened in 2011 is said to be NT$1.5 billion (US$50 million), which accounts for 20 percent of total film receipts in Taiwan, a 20-year record.
Wei Te-Sheng, writer-director of Cape No. 7, finally finished Warrior of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale (2011), two-feature film project he had been preparing for more than a decade. The film was in competition at the 2011 Venice Film Festival in September 2011. As the most visible and highest anticipated film in recent history, the two parts combined had earned in the domestic market a total of NT$880 million (US$29 million), which makes Seediq Bale the second top-grossing film in the history of Taiwan cinema, beating Titanic and losing only to Avatar (dir. James Cameron, 2009).
The most astonishing surprise in 2011, however, was You Are the Apple of My Eye (2011), a youth-romance debut film directed by popular web writer Giddens Ko, adapted from his novel of the same title which was published on the internet. Its box-office in Taiwan was estimated at NT$415 million (US$13.7 million), ranking third in the 2011 domestic market, losing only to Transformers: Dark of the Moon (dir. Michael Bay, 2011) and Seediq Bale: Flag of the Sun, the first part of Warrior of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale. What makes the film especially notable was its low production cost, less than NT$30 million (US$1 million). In 2012, it became the highest grossing Chinese-language film of all time in Hong Kong, taking in more than HK$61 million (US$7.89 million) after 73 days in cinemas, and beating the previous record set by Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle (2004).
To sum up, through the films made by Taiwan New Cinema directors and post-Taiwan New Cinema directors, Taiwan cinema was not only recognized internationally, but considered an important contribution to world cinema.
Daw-Ming Lee is a visiting professor at the Academy of Film, Hong Kong Baptist University / The editor of this article, Ting-Ying Lin, received her PhD from the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London/ This article is adapted from Historical Dictionary of Taiwan Cinema / Image Credit: Flickr/ m-louis .®