Hollywood is the spiritual home of the blockbuster action flick; France of more arty, melancholy movies; and Britain of the period drama (think Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson wandering around imposing stately homes).
How about Taiwan? Well, its filmmakers seem to have found the secret sauce for producing teenage romances.
The rough story arc: boy meets girl at high school, time flies, they grow up and drift apart, before meeting once again.
Such elementary ingredients saw You Are the Apple of My Eye take in more than NT$410 million ($12.6 million) in 2011, registering as the island’s third biggest box office hit ever.
When released in mainland China in 2012, You Are the Apple of My Eye broke the record for a Taiwanese movie, earning Rmb76 million ($12 million). But that performance is going to be surpassed by Our Times, another adolescent love story. The plot begins in present-day Taipei where lead actress Joe Chen is in her thirties and stuck in a dead-end job. One night she recalls her puppy love of the 1990s (the younger Chen is played by Vivian Sung, a clumsy girl who spends her days fawning over the most popular boy). Straightforward stuff, it seems, but Our Times has already grossed more than Rmb100 million in China since its debut last week.
Teen romances from Taiwan aren’t guaranteed to be hits. Cape No.7, the highest grossing Chinese-language movie in Taiwan (it made more than NT$530 million) didn’t excite mainland audiences, with one critic blaming the movie’s “implicit Japanophilia” – a result, he said, of Taiwan’s colonial past under Japanese rule.
Our Times opts for the safer themes of first love and coming of age, experiences that can be shared by those on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.
Of course, if a genre is seen to be working with audiences, China’s film moguls aren’t likely to pass on attempting to make a domestic version too. Sometimes, though, they add a twist of their own. Take So Young, where a Chinese woman reconnects with her college sweetheart. It was a commercial success, as were My Old Classmate and Back in Time.
But unlike their Taiwanese brethren, all three featured a gritty subplot: abortion.
“So Young, My Old Classmate and Back in Time have been considered the trilogy of our youth romance genre. Three movies, three abortions. A 100% abortion rate,” Sina Entertainment notes.
“Wait a minute, why do they always jump to abortion after having the first kiss? What has happened to our teen films?” a netizen commented in a post on the same article.
Pregnancy terminations now seem so associated with some of China’s ‘teen films’, that when you type that term into the search engine Baidu, “abortion” pops up as a complementary keyword.
“Watching Taiwanese teen films is like taking a warm bath or cycling along sea breezes. Very relaxing and very comfortable,” a critic writes on China.com. “But the same genre of movie in the mainland tackles a much more brutal reality. That is the biggest difference.”
ThePaper.cn reckons that Taiwanese directors handle the genre more skilfully, blending the right mix of sentimentality and comedy.
Across the Strait there are much harsher realities to contend with. “In mainland productions the boys and girls all have to undergo vigorous labour pains to grow up. Their coming of age typically involves sacrificing an unborn baby. If that’s not cruel enough, some scriptwriters resort to car crashes so that the youthfulness of the lead characters is crushed to pieces,” ThePaper.cn suggests.
But is Chinese cinema just mirroring reality? About 13 million abortions are carried out annually, according to the technology research centre under the National Health and Family Planning Commission, the China Daily reported in January. The Economist, citing an estimate by the health agency Marie Stopes, says that the annual figure may be closer to 40 million.
At a public hospital in Tianjin, the China Daily reports, the number of under 16s undergoing abortions is growing 30% a year, triggering concerns about the effectiveness of sex education among young people.
Traditionally discussion about the birds and the bees has been something of a taboo subject for Chinese parents. According to the same report in The Economist, a 24 year-old forestry student from Beijing informed the magazine that his parents had told him he had “emerged from a rock” when he enquired about his origins. When the same man started having sex with his university girlfriend he had little idea about contraception.
In the absence of better sex education in schools and at home, perhaps mainland film producers are taking on more of the responsiblity themselves. Their dramas may not have the same lyricism as their Taiwanese progenitors but at least they make plain the consequences of careless coupling for teens.
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