In 2016, Taiwan cinema experienced another slump in the “post-Cape No. 7 era” which began after 2008. The overall yearly box office plunged about five per cent compared to 2015. Taiwanese comedy-dramas and teenage high school films, which used to appeal strongly to the domestic audience, came up short, and movies featuring the usually reliable A-list actor Chu Ke-liang also tumbled at the box office.
But Taiwanese directors rose to the challenge. Author-turned director Neal Wu Tzu-yun’s At Café 6 (2016), Fu Tien-Yu’s My Egg Boy (2016), and the genre-exploding Chung Mong-hong’s Godspeed (2016) are all commercial, deliver a high-quality result, and tell a compelling story. There are also new works by director Wei-hao Cheng and director Giddens Ko to look forward to in 2017. Both are exploring more diverse subjects than before, and have sharpened their filmmaking skills.
After the Lunar New Year blockbusters last year came Gavin Lin’s Welcome to the Happy Days and Mingzheng Huang’s 2 Idiots. These two Taiwanese comedies deal with the subject of economics in a humorous and sometimes satirical way. Both had low box-office returns. Welcome to the Happy Days is a story of a Taiwanese girl who unwillingly takes over the family-run guesthouse, where she meets a foreign boy who offers to work in exchange for accommodation. The film discusses the cultural difference of the characters, and the meaning of life and living, through examining tourism.
2 Idiots, a road trip movie, tells the story of two managers who, after a bankruptcy, accidentally join a loan-shark ring. Mingzheng Huang’s film presents the mundane life of nobodies, and intends to discover the existential meaning of ordinary people and their day-to-day lives.
Spring brought Mole of Life, based around the theme of cops and robbers, and the drama Hang in There, Kids! (a.k.a. Lokah Laqi!). The two films focused on social issues. Writer-director Chien-yu Yu’s Mole of Life was about two brothers, one a policeman and the other a gangster. Against a backdrop of the profound changes in Taiwanese society that took place in the 1980s and 1990s, which saw the change from martial law and the White Terror, to liberty and the beginning of free speech, Yu shows the complex relationship between the police force and gangsters. He shows how organised crime influences the government and the judiciary. It was a well-intentioned movie, but sadly, the result didn’t live up to the idea.
Writer-director Laha Mebow’s (Chen Chieh-Yao) Hang in There, Kids! is a refreshing story which looks at life through the eyes of indigenous children. It shows their daily life, and reflects on their difficult transition to the modern world. The film has won five awards, including best narrative feature, grand prize, and best director at the Taipei Film Festival, and it was selected as Taiwan’s entry in the Academy Awards foreign-language category.
Blockbusters included Go! Crazy Gangster, At Café 6, Happy Dorm, The Tenants Downstairs, and The Big Power. The first three were high-school teenage dramas. Out of the five, only At Café 6 opened well. But due to some blunders during the release, the film underperformed.
As with Giddens Ko, Neal Wu’s first feature film At Café 6 is an adaptation of his own novel about remembering a high-school love. Compared with other coming-of-age films, like You Are the Apple of My Eye (2011) and Our Times (2015), At Café 6 is less of a teen romance and more of a regretful look at the past.
At Café 6 unspools in two very different parts. The first, which has a backdrop of high school life, has the typical elements of a rom-com: boy-meets-girl, a romantic pursuit, some comedic situations, and some innocent misunderstandings. The second part, which follows the young couple (played by Dong Zijian and Cherry Ngan) after they leave high school and enter different colleges, shows Wu’s skill at narrating bittersweet romantic stories. The problems of a long-distance relationship ensue.
Chinese actor Dong Zijian, who was nominated for best actor at Cannes for Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart (2015), and Taiwanese actor Austin Lin (a.k.a. Lin Bo-hong, who won best supporting actor at the Golden Horse Awards for At Café 6) play two best friends. Their sense of brotherhood is at the centre of the story. The audience is able to feel the emotional tension, their deep friendship, and the escalating conflict through two very impressive performances.
A collaboration between a Taiwanese, mainland, and Hong Kong crew, At Café 6 was expected to become the next Our Times. Unfortunately, a scandal about main actress Cherry Ngan misbehaving at her university finals, veteran Taiwanese actor Leon Dai’s alleged support for Taiwanese independence, and Neal Wu’s blunt public statement about China policy, lost At Café 6 its audience across the straits.
Director Adam Tsuei’s The Tenants Downstairs is an adaption of Giddens Ko’s earlier novel, which Ko adapted into a script. The film combines the main elements of commercial films: thrills, violence, a dark sense of humour, erotic encounters, and suspense. Cantonese actor Simon Yam plays a mysterious landlord who rents a large mansion to all sorts of tenants: a single father with a young daughter, a sexy office lady, and a single high-school gymnastics teacher.
Each of them arrives with their own secrets, and is unknowingly watched by the voyeuristic landlord. The nude sex scene, the excessive violence, and the dark side of human nature attracted a considerable audience. The Tenants Downstairs became the second-highest domestic grossing film of the year, taking NT$130 million at the box-office (about US$4.2 million).
The 2016 Lunar New Year blockbuster, A-list actor Chu Ke-liang’s David Loman 2, successfully made NT$170 million (about US$5.5 million), and ended up as the highest grossing film of the year. Chu’s other film, The Big Power, was supposed to be the big summer blockbuster, but failed miserably with a take of NT$2.8 million domestically (about US$90,900). A-list actor Chu may have lost his appeal for the audience, but the phenomenon points to a deeper problem in Taiwanese comedy productions. That is, they have just been repeating what works in the past without innovation, so quality has suffered.
Writer-director Fu Tien-Yu’s second feature My Egg Boy, a romantic drama with a fairly high budget of NT$80 million (about US$2.6 million, high for a romantic drama), had delicate cinematography and production design, and even went to Switzerland to shoot a scene which featured snow. My Egg Boy is superficially romantic comedy, but its hidden intention is to discuss life philosophically. The two parallel storylines involve reality and fantasy. In real life, the main character (Ariel Lin) is a manager at a frozen food company who falls in love with a master chef (Rhydian Vaughan), who values the freshness of every ingredient. The woman decides to have her eggs preserved, worrying about infertility. The fantasy world begins after her eggs are frozen, and some interesting dialogues ensue.
Fu Tien-Yu’s film talks about two human desires, food and sex, and choosing between frozen food and fresh food represents fertility and infertility. My Egg Boy explores the predicament of modern love from a distance. By connecting the two subjects, the film searches for deeper philosophical realities. Creating a conversation between a mother and her future baby, a new egg and an aged egg, and an egg and a seed is refreshing. Making the audience ponder life’s beginnings, My Egg Boy is more than just a romantic comedy.
Godspeed is the fourth feature from director Chung Mong-hong, after Parking (2008), The Fourth Portrait (2010), and Soul (2013). It’s also the most popular, and the most masculine, film out of the four. Coming from a commercial background, Chung Mong-hong has a knack for great composition. The cinematographer-writer-director creates images portraying a seemingly close-but-distant reality.
Godspeed depicts an absurd and dangerous road trip based around transporting drugs. Hong Kong actor Michael Hui plays a Cantonese taxi driver who immigrated to Taiwan 20 ago. One morning, he runs into Lin Yu-Chih, who plays a gangster who’s been ordered to bring drugs from Taipei to the south of Taiwan. The two travel along highways and country roads, run into a strange funeral, and get involved in gangster fights. Along the way, the driver and the passenger share their intimate life stories, becoming close friends by the end.
Godspeed is filmed in Chung’s usual style, with calm violence and a dark sense of humour. The entire cast are men, except for the wife of the taxi driver, who is played by Lin Mei-hsiu. Chung intends to redefine the idea of brotherhood in gangster films. Godspeed begins with the criminal mastermind (played by Leon Dai) travelling to Thailand for a drug deal, and later there’s a series of life-and-death chases, which test the loyalty of the protagonists. Either in business or in friendship, trust is a solid foundation for any relationship. Doubts and suspicions exist between the mob boss and his subordinate, and the driver and his passenger. The story enlarges up a deep-seated mistrust which leads to further complications.
Godspeed was nominated eight times at the 2016 Golden Horse Awards, while Midi Z’s The Road to Mandalay was nominated six times. The two films are the best representatives of Taiwan cinema in 2016. It’s interesting to note that the hero of Godspeed is a distressed Hong Kong immigrant who has lived in Taiwan for many years, and The Road to Mandalay is a story about a Chinese-Myanmarese who, so he can have a life in Taiwan, risks everything. Director Midi Z is well known for making films with a minimal budget and crew. The Road to Mandalay had a higher NT$40 million (about US$1.3 million) budget, plus movie star Ko Chen-tung (aka Chia-Kai Ko), but that didn’t diminish the director’s strongly realistic style.
The depression in Taiwanese cinema continued into the beginning of 2017. In the past, Taiwanese Lunar New Year blockbusters could match Hollywood movies. This year, Chen Yu-hsun’s The Village of No Return, Wei Te-sheng’s 52HZ, I Love You, and actor Chu Ke-liang’s Hanky Panky each earned around NT$50 million (about US$1.6 million) at the domestic box office. Previous Lunar New Year blockbusters earned about double that, so the situation is alarming. The reason may be that the audience did not accept Chen Yu-hsun’s attempt at a satirical period comedy, nor Wei Te-sheng’s attempt at a musical. Hanky Panky is just more evidence the A-list actor has lost his charm.
Wei-hao Cheng had success with The Tag-Along in 2015, and has gone on to direct Who Killed Cock Robin and The Tag-Along 2. The two films, which will screen this year, both featuring actress Hsu Wei-ning. Cheng originally captured attention with his short films, Gao She Mo Gui? (which means “what’s going on?”) and Zu Ji Shou (which means “sniper”). In 2015, Cheng’s The Death of a Security Guard won the best short film at the Taipei Film Awards and the Golden Horse Awards. Unfolding at a brisk tempo with a highly charged atmosphere, Cheng’s first feature The Tag-Along took NT$80 million (about US$2.6 million) at the domestic box office, and earned approval from the audience.
Who Killed Cock Robin and The Tag-Along 2, build on what Cheng has achieved, and see him working on a bigger canvas. Who Killed Cock Robin, like The Death of a Security Guard, focuses on social issues and the media. It has some depth, and analyses the dark side of political power struggles, and the complex nature of media ethics. Kai-Hsun Chuang plays a journalist who investigates the connection between two car accidents that occurred nine years apart. Hsu Wei-ning plays a supervisor who hinders his investigation, and Ko Chia-yen plays the mysterious victim.
The original cast of Hsu Wei-ning and Huang He return, joined by Taiwanese star Rainie Yang. The sequel continues to examine the darkness caused by traumatising experiences. The Tag-Along 2 is definitely more horrifying than the first one.
Six years after You Are the Apple of My Eye, writer-director Giddens Ko has finally made his second feature film, Mon Mon Mon Monsters. This time Ko wrote an original script and directed without an executive director, challenging his personal limits, as well as testing the limits of the market. Ko has brought in a new cast, combined different genres, and applied new techniques to filming. Aside from experienced actress Carolyn Chen, and Yukai Deng from Partners in Crime (2014), the rest of the cast are first-timers. Mon Mon Mon Monsters is a fantasy violence thriller, with a NT$100 million budget (about US$3.25 million), and the shoot included shutting down a whole street to build the set, and a great amount of post-visual effects.
Mon Mon Mon Monsters is a Taiwanese version of Battle Royale (2000), which tells the story of an overachieving student who snitches on his fellow students, who bully him. The teacher decides to resolve the issue by asking those involved to take care of a senior citizen. They discover a little cannibal monster, and start to become evil as they study it.
Mon Mon Mon Monsters is inspired by the bullying Ko saw in high school. Despite being another high-school film, it’s also a rare and innovative Taiwanese fantasy thriller. It’s thoroughly mainstream, and is expected to be as popular as You Are the Apple of My Eye.