Pop Culture

Why these Taiwanese films are box-office hits

Strong storylines and stunning new actors are some reasons

The resurgence of Taiwanese films at the box office continues with the winning youth romance Our Times.

It is the No. 1 domestic film of the year thus far with takings of NT$400 million (S$17.1 million). This puts it at No. 34 on the all-time list and in fifth position on the list of top-earning Taiwanese films.

This is a wave that started to rise with drama Cape No. 7 (2008) and shows no sign of breaking just yet. That modestly budgeted drama about a no-hope amateur band is the most successful local film in Taiwan, grossing NT$530 million.

Since then, films such as historical epic Seediq Bale (2011), comedy David Loman (2013) and youth romance You Are The Apple Of My Eye (2011) have been cleaning up at the box office on home ground.

The diverse genres of these films suggest that there is no easy formula to coming up with a hit.

It might seem obvious that tinkering with the school romance plot of You Are The Apple Of My Eye is a sure thing now that Our Times is a bona fide hit. But the fact is, even if one carefully lined up similar elements, lightning might not strike twice.

Before Our Times, Sung had starred in Cafe.Waiting.Love (2014), also a youthful romance mixing comedy and drama. Like You Are The Apple Of My Eye, it was based on a novel by the popular writer Giddens Ko and boasted an appealing cast. While it was by no means a flop, its takings of NT$260 million were substantially less than Apple's NT$410 million.

A closer examination of the most successful films reveals some noteworthy trends.

On Chinese Wikipedia's list of the 15 highest-grossing Taiwanese films, the oldest entry is Lee Ang's erotic spy thriller Lust, Caution (2007) at No. 10 with NT$280 million earned. But it is primarily seen as an international co-production involving the United States and China as well.

Hence it is Cape No. 7 that is credited with kick-starting this heady new chapter in the Taiwanese film industry.

What was remarkable is that the film was neither helmed by any big names nor featured heralded stars. The feature debut of writer- director Wei Te-sheng, it had the leading actors Van Fan, better known for being a singer past the modest peak of his popularity, and Chie Tanaka, who had little prior acting experience.

With his follow-up film, Wei showed that Cape No. 7 was no fluke. The two-part Warriors Of The Rainbow: Seediq Bale (2011) featured a cast of unknown aborigine actors and earned more than NT$790 million. Its two instalments land at No. 2 and 7 on the list of top-grossing Taiwanese films.

It is the films that are making stars out of actors, from Kai Ko in You Are The Apple Of My Eye to Vivian Sung in Our Times (Ko won for Best New Actor, while Sung has been nominated for Best Actress at the Golden Horse Awards next month). This is very different from the modus operandi of Hollywood films in which A-list talent often drive opening weekends and are paid handsomely for doing so.

Instead, the most popular Taiwanese films of recent years are distinguished by strong stories, often with a strong Taiwanese identity.

The southern-most town of Hengchun was not just a setting in Cape No. 7, it was also an integral part of the movie with its gorgeous scenery and the never-say-die spirit of its denizens. The success of the movie even resulted in a tourism boom for Hengchun as fans flocked to filming locations.

Seediq Bale depicted an uprising of the Seediq people against colonial Japanese forces in Taiwan in 1930. Kano (2014, NT$330 million earned) was about a Taiwanese baseball team playing against the odds when the island was under Japanese rule.

Din Tao: Leader Of The Parade (2012, NT$317 million earned) offered a look at the traditional Taiwanese practice of performing at religious festivals. Monga (2010, NT$258 million earned) made Taiwanese gangsters cool and the title refers to a rough-and-tumble district in Taipei.

Beyond Beauty: Taiwan From Above (2013), the highest-grossing documentary in the territory with NT$220 million earned, was a labour of love on the environmental damage wrought on the island in the name of progress.

The diversity of the Taiwanese top earners is a heartening sign. Instead of trodding down familiar paths, film-makers would rather venture into new territory. And audiences are following right along. Maybe there is a lesson here for local film-makers.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 21, 2015, with the headline Why these Taiwanese films are box-office hits. Subscribe