Playing it Strait

Why Taiwanese movies are doing so well in mainland China

Playing it Strait

Taiwanese talent: Shu Qi is popular at the box office

By Hollywood Reporter’s estimate, the movie title Love has been used at least 70 times in cinematic history. One of the most famous examples was Edmund Goulding’s 1927 Anna Karenina adaptation, when it was chosen to allow promotional posters to proclaim that the two stars Greta Garbo and John Gilbert “are in Love”.

Hopefully, the promoters of the latest film to use the title – a romantic comedy from Taiwanese director Niu Chen-Zer – will have a more sophisticated marketing plan in mind.

Fortunately, the film has a well-known cast (including Shu Qi and Ethan Ruan) and tells three interlocking romantic stories (if that sounds familiar, it’s because it resembles Love Actually).

One of the more interesting plotlines revolves around the unlikely romance between Taiwanese businessman Mark (Mark Jau) and mainland Chinese realtor Xiao Ye (Vicki Zhao). The two meet when Xiao Ye is given the job of showing Mark around a hutong in Beijing where he’s thinking of buying property. From unpromising beginnings, the pair discover that they share Manchurian ancestry and more.

Is that supposed to be symbolic of newly-positive relations across the Taiwan Strait too? Niu didn’t address this directly but told local media that Taiwan and China should work further in filmmaking collaboration. “We share the same culture, and have the same blood and the same passion for filmmaking,” says the director.

Even though the reviews for Love are mixed, the film has now surpassed $15 million in box office takings in China, well beyond the revenue performance of its Chinese peers. The strong results have also led to discussion of why Taiwanese films are doing so well in the mainland film market. Robert Cain, author of the blog chinafilmbiz, points out that three films from Taiwanese directors have each grossed $8 million or better in the first two months of 2012, and that Taiwanese films in general have collectively grossed almost $40 million – that’s over 10% of the Chinese box office (though Hollywood still dominates, taking 77% of the share, by Cain’s estimation, in January and February).

Hubei Daily reckons Taiwanese films do well because they are “fun to watch and refreshing. They remind us of a bygone era.” By comparison, mainland Chinese films are often seen as staid or uninspiring. As WiC has mentioned before, one of the biggest complaints about Chinese productions are their perceived lack of creativity. Some put that down to onerous rules and regulations, and last year Feng Xiaogang, China’s most successful filmmaker in commercial terms, openly criticised the censorship system as a reason why China “cannot produce films that withstand the rigours of time.”

Cain agrees that Chinese films lack commercial appeal, although he suggests that this could be linked to a reverence for the past, which results in overly historical and nostalgic storylines.

Additionally, Cain argues that China’s filmmakers need to invest more time in scriptwriting.

“You have so many brilliant artists and writers in China. Please stop locking them up… Good movies need good stories and creative thinking,” pleaded the blogger.

Chu Yen-ping, a Taiwanese director, agrees. He told Legal Evening News that what differentiates the Taiwanese movies is the quality of their storylines.

“Why did Treasure Hunter (a mainland martial arts film) flop? Because the story sucks. When I make a film I hire nine scriptwriters and make sure I drain all their creativity before I let them go.”

Meanwhile, Taiwan’s filmmakers are stepping up their efforts to court mainland moviegoers. Many have toned down their own use of Hokkien, a dialect that is widely spoken across Taiwan but largely incomprehensible to most on the Chinse mainland. In the past producers have tried to translate Hokkien slang into their Mandarin equivalent but many of the sayings and jokes then fall flat.

But for perhaps the strongest official sign that Taiwanese culture is currently in vogue, look no further than China’s own prime minister, who quoted a Taiwanese poet at his closing press conference for this year’s National People’s Congress.

To the surprise of journalists at the event, Wen Jiabao recited verse from Lin Chaosong: “There is no way to heal my broken heart, but there is a day that the half moon becomes full again.”

WiC hasn’t been able to track down the policy context for such a literary outburst.

But, by the sound of it, Wen might consider doing a little scriptwriting himself once he steps down from office next year…

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