2011 was the most important year for Taiwan cinema in a generation. There were two major seismic events: the wholehearted return of audiences to local cinema, and the opening up of the China market to Taiwan-produced films.
In 2010, the number of Taiwan-produced films receiving theatrical releases had already doubled to more than 30 feature films. This represented a new confidence in the possibility of local cinema after the success of gangster drama Monga (FEFF2010) in 2009. Monga had taken NT$116m (US$3.95m) in Taipei, the only city with reliable box office statistics. What was unique about Monga was its strong opening weekend, which demonstrated that an audience could both be targeted and reached.
The total box office of local films in Taipei in 2010 was NT$96.4m (US$3.28m) with 33 films on release. In 2011, a similar number of films were released -- 35 -- but box office reached NT$673m (US$22.8m), a seven-fold increase in one year. And although Taiwan cinema is no stranger to boom-and-bust cycles, the sign so far in 2012 is that audiences have kept their appetite for local films. In the first two months of 2012, eight released films have made NT$231m (US$7.86m). In terms of average box office takings for each film, representing the viability of filmmaking as a business, that's an increase from NT$2.92m (US$99,000) in 2010 to NT$19.2m (US$654,000) in 2011 to NT$28.9m (US$982,000) in 2012. Again, these are the box office numbers for Taipei; nationwide, box office is approximately two to three times higher. For the first time in a generation, Taiwan film production can be perceived as not only a creative pursuit but perhaps also a viable business.
The most successful film - or films - at the Taipei box office in 2011 was the aborigine war epic Warriors of the Rainbow (Seediq Bale). Released in two parts, the four-and-a-half hour historical drama about an uprising against the Japanese in the 1930s made NT$333m ($11.3m) in Taipei. It was also Taiwan's most expensive film with an official budget of NT$700m (US$23.8m), begged-and-borrowed by the film's single-minded director, Wei Te-sheng, who previously shot blockbuster Cape No. 7 (FEFF2009) .
But the most remarkable success of the year was the youth drama You are the Apple of My Eye which made NT$180m (US$6.13m) in Taipei in cinemas in the weeks before the heavily-marketed opening of Seediq Bale. An autobiographical first-feature by novelist Giddens, based on his own best-selling book, the film also marked the debut of actor Kai Ko in the role of the author. It also made an overnight star of young actress Michelle Chen, as the object of a group of high school boys' affections.
Apple was an even bigger success outside Taiwan. In Hong Kong, on the last day of 2011, it broke the record held by Stephen Chow's Kung Fu Hustle with HK$61.3m (US$7.90m) after 30 days in cinemas to become the most successful Chinese language film ever released in the city. In China, on release in January 2012, it made an additional RMB71.6m (US$11.4m) despite - or because of - being widely available on counterfeit DVD for two to three months.
The China release was unusual for a Taiwan film, which had previously had to squeeze into an annual quota for foreign films. It was the fourth Taiwan film released in China since the signing of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) in 2010, which opened up Mainland screens to Taiwan-produced. The first film to open under the new regulations, Night Market Hero (FEF2011), had been released in China six-months-to-the-day earlier, in July 2011, and had taken just over US$200,000.
The Chinese box office record set by Apple in January has already been overtaken by a co-production, Doze Niu's multi-character romance Love. Released on the eve of Valentine's Day, it has taken RMB119m (US$18.9m) in its first two weeks in cinemas. Primarily shot in Taipei, with one section featuring Vicki Zhao in Beijing, the film has the cream of young Taiwan talent with Shu Qi starring opposite Mark Chao, Ethan Ruan, Ivy Chen, Eddie Peng and Amber Kuo.
Love is a co-production with Huayi Brothers Media Corporation, one of China's leading independent film companies. Huayi also co-produced Taiwan-based Tom Lin's drama Starry Starry Night in 2011, based on a beloved children's story by Jimmy Liao. Huayi has unusually close ties to Taiwan. Its head of production is Taiwan film-maker Chen Kuo-fu, a strong screenwriter who directed The Personals (FEF2000) who has been living in Beijing for the past eight years.
Doze Niu joins Chen Kuo-fu as one of a handful of Taiwan filmmakers who have found box office success in China. While Huayi has drawn on South Korean technical skills to push the possibilities of Chinese cinema - notably on Feng Xiaogang's war movie Assembly (FEF2008) and on melodramatic disaster epic Aftershock (FEF2011) - Chen has brought in and nurtured Taiwan scriptwriters for Tsui Hark's Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame and Stephen Fung's upcoming Tai Chi movies.
Another Taiwan filmmaker to make a successful transition in the past year is Leste Chen, director of horror The Heirloom (FEF2006) and gay youth drama Eternal Summer (FEF2007). Chen's first feature in five years, romantic comedy Love on Credit, was a modest hit in China in October taking RMB33.9m (US$5.37m). His next film, already announced to open on Valentine's Day 2013, is an official big screen adaptation of Japanese TV drama classic 101st Marriage Proposal, with Fuji TV on board as an investor.
While several Taiwan filmmakers are shifting their careers to China, the reverse is still not possible. Although actors from China may appear in Taiwan movies, directors from China are still forbidden from making films in Taiwan. There is also a quota permitting only ten films from China - excluding co-productions - to open on the island. This year, Taiwan distributors had to queue outside the Government Information Office on New Year's Day for two nights to secure permits.
For decades the culture of Taiwan has been defined in opposition to that of China. Film-makers are still very conscious of making "local" films, and even Doze Niu's Love feels very Taiwanese. Many films use local religious iconography and depict other local traditions that would seem exotic to Chinese audiences so as to shout their Taiwan identity. But their target market is primarily local audiences in Taiwan, and arguably the politicians still willing to finance them.
Interestingly, the biggest box office successes of 2012 to date - Din Tao: Leader of the Parade and Love - tried and failed to secure government subsidies. (Love did receive a "bounty" from the government, based on a percentage of Monga's box office income.) Din Tao, which has made NT$98.5m (US$3.34m) in Taipei by late February, is a heartfelt film about a father and his prodigal son, a failed drummer in Taipei, who returns home where he embraces and then reinvents local traditions.
Looking back at the last year of Taiwan cinema, the consistent theme of the successes is “sincerity”. Apple, Seediq Bale and Din Tao were personal projects conceived over several years that were primarily aimed at a local audience. It is hard to imagine any one of the directors leaving Taiwan to make films in China. But the success of Love, and Apple, in the Mainland will likely change Taiwan cinema forever, just as the lure of China audiences transformed Hong Kong cinema.