Written by Brian Hioe
Image Credit: Cinema by keso s/Flickr, license: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
The Taiwanese New Wave is perhaps the most internationally significant example of Taiwanese soft power. Since then, Taiwan has arguably struggled to develop anything comparable in terms of projecting soft power through its domestic film and television industries.
What is perhaps so unlikely is the success of the Taiwanese New Wave. Although the New Wave films date to when the KMT still ruled Taiwan, it was because of the loosening of restrictions on cultural policy by James Soong as head of the Government Information Office that the New Wave could flourish, Soong noting that Taiwan did not have an internationally recognisable cinema in making this decision.
One can compare to the flourishing of Soviet film during the New Economic Policy or after the thawing of tensions with the US and USSR. Yet this did not prevent New Wave film from being highly critical of the powers that be, as in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s depiction of the 228 Massacre in City of Sadness or the critique of American imperialism that appears in the ensemble film The Sandwich Man.
Despite the originality of the Taiwanese New Wave, there was to some extent in which it was mimetic, given the large inspiration from Italian neorealism in the early New Wave. Yet this mimetic aspect may have been what allowed the Taiwanese New Wave to find success on the international art film circuit. This developed an aesthetic that was decidedly different from contemporary developments in Chinese Fifth Generation cinema at the time, even when key staff members were sometimes shared. We can see this in cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s work in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan alike, or composer and musician Lim Giong’s soundtracks in the Sinophone cultural sphere. However, this aesthetic was still recognisable and legible to international audiences. And, certainly, efforts by the Taiwanese government to boost significant cultural figures such as those of the New Wave in the international sphere continue in the present.
One notes that present-day efforts by the government to export Taiwanese film and television as a form of soft power have sometimes sought to situate contemporary productions within more understandable frames to a global audience. For example, the recently launched English-language state-run television broadcaster Taiwan+ sought to frame SEQALU, which depicts the events of the historical Rover Incident, as a historical drama that would be gripping to international audiences. One saw similarly with PTS’ production Island Nation, which dramatised Taiwan’s democratisation during the Lee Teng-hui period. As Taiwan’s first political drama, this was sometimes termed as Taiwan’s “House of Cards.”
In some ways, the international audience is more primed to tap into successful Taiwanese productions than ever. International streaming platforms such as Netflix make it possible for the international success of Asian productions, as in the recent explosive popularity of Squid Game. Likewise, some Taiwanese television productions in recent years are, in fact, collaborations with Netflix, in which Netflix has assisted with scripting and planning.
But one notes that a weak script hampered by poor translation and overstated acting is probably why SEQALU and Island Nation did not find international success. Namely, such works were not strong enough to stand on their own right for audiences that may not know of Taiwanese history and have no emotional attachment to Taiwan, making them more sympathetic to an otherwise flawed dramatisation of Taiwanese history and more forgiving of its attendant production flaws.
This is to be contrasted with the international acclaim given to 2019’s A Sun, for example, something that took place after being accidentally discovered by international critics on Netflix and making Variety’s best films of the year in 2020. What A Sun had that Island Nation or SEQALU did not was that its themes were, in fact, able to resonate for those that did not have substantive knowledge of Taiwan, for all Island Nation or SEQALU’s ambitions to display the breadth of Taiwanese history.
The Taiwanese domestic film industry collapsed after Taiwan’s entry into the World Trade Organisation. The influx of Hollywood productions flooded the market after quotas on the number of films that could be imported were lifted. There have been some critical international successes after the revival of the domestic film industry following Wei Te-sheng’s 2008 Cape No. 7. Still, there has not been anything comparable to the Taiwanese New Wave. Similarly, the Taiwanese film industry has difficulty sustaining the careers of even award-winning directors—one notes the trajectory of Lin Cheng-sheng and the languishing of his career on the international film festival circuit after 2003’s Betelnut Beauty, for example.
To this extent, with the international success of South Korean film and television such as Squid Game, Snowpiercer, or Parasite, has been watched with no small amount of envy by the Taiwanese television and film industry. 2016’s The Wailing was, for example, a film that provoked discussion among commentators as to why contemporary Taiwanese film was not as high quality as the critically acclaimed Korean production. No less than President Tsai Ing-wen would remark on how the Taiwanese film industry could learn from the Korean film industry in 2021.
Part of the success of Korean film internationally has been due to the promotion successes of the South Korean government, despite doing so using relatively little funds. Arguably, then, this points to the Taiwanese government’s failure in this regard.
Namely, efforts at international promotion by the Cultural Division of TECOs internationally is often scattershot. Moreover, some TECOs notwithstanding, most promotional efforts are managed by individuals who generally do not understand what they are promoting. As a result, there is a failure to reach out to local media or the local cultural sector to promote Taiwanese film and television. Similarly, while the precise point of emphasising soft power is to distinguish Taiwan from China, there is often a failure to take into account how local audiences may fail to distinguish Taiwanese and Chinese cultural exports, such as when Taiwanese cultural exports end up being those that strongly emphasise traditional Chinese culture—even when this occurs at great public expenditure.
As a result, Taiwan may have a long way to go with regards to this before achieving anything like the successes of the Taiwanese New Wave some decades back. This ultimately returns to issues that exist on multiple levels, all the way from within the film industry to government promotion of Taiwanese films.
Brian Hioe was one of the founding editors of New Bloom. He is a freelance writer on social movements and politics, and occasional translator.
This piece was published as part of a special issue on Asian Mediascapes of Taiwan.