Taiwanese fingers will be crossed on Monday as wrenching family drama film “A Sun” hopes to secure the territory’s first foreign Oscar nomination since 2000, when Lee Ang’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was a winner in the category and became a global commercial success.
Directed by Chung Mong-hong “A Sun” is a powerful and dark tale of disaffected youth that raises questions about parental and individual responsibility. And it is somewhat at odds with Taiwan’s cinematic image as a land of colorful fantasy, urban slackers and martial arts.
But that dissonance, and the film’s critical acclaim, are all good from the point of view of TAICCA, the newish government-backed agency whose role it is to help develop and promote the Taiwanese creative sector.
“Taiwan is the freest country in Asia, our creators can create whatever we want. That is today’s situation,” says Ting Hsiao-Ching, chairperson of TAICCA. The reference to creative freedom in Taiwan is intended as a contrast to mainland China where government is operating an increasingly heavy and overtly patriotic hand in the film industry. China also disputes the political status of Taiwan, which has been independently governed for over 70 years, considering it not a country, but instead as a rebellious Chinese province with which it will be eventually reunited – by force if necessary.
Until such an event takes place, however, the Taiwan Creative Content Agency is in the forefront of pitching Taiwan as a liberal, successful and pragmatic place to make movies, TV and art.
“Before TAICCA, a lot of Taiwan talent and money went to China because the market is so much bigger. But we all know that there are a lot of limitations in China, and creators cannot work on their projects as they want. With TAICCA we expect that some talent can come back to Taiwan and work freely here,” says Ting.
The body was established in June 2019 with a remit spanning ten creative sectors including publishing, pop music, animation, comics and games. It is supervised by the Ministry of Culture, but considers itself as a professional intermediary, linking different industries within Taiwan, promoting Taiwan companies and content, and liaising with similar cultural support organizations overseas.
That is markedly different from a previous era when the film industry was overseen by the Government Information Office, a policy and rules-setting department whose propaganda roots reflected the island’s 20th century history; first as a Japanese colony, and later as a military dictatorship. Since 1989, Taiwan has flourished as a high tech-driven economy and as one of the most democratically-run parts of Asia.
“Unlike the GIO which was staffed by civil servants, our staff are (creative) industry people. Our mission is more commercially-focused and is to build up contents,” says Ting.
A relatively new organization, TAICCA is still fleshing out its modus operandi. Until now its main levers have been co-investment and subsidy for international marketing, though it is negotiating more powers and budget in order to be able to conduct single project financing for instance. Indeed, TAICCA is not the principal, but rather a conduit for monies flowing from the National Development Fund.
In film and TV, TAICCA seeks to encourage cross-border production between private enterprises (not strictly co-production and bilateral inter-governmental treaties are not involved). These can be Taiwanese films that secure international partners, or incoming international projects.
The organization will provide up to 30% of the production budget on condition that the other 70% of finance is in place, that commercial viability can be proved through international sales or distribution, and that there are Taiwan elements. TAICCA does not operate a point system or cultural test that exist in some other jurisdictions.
Reimbursement terms require profit sharing after breakeven, and for a period limited to five years. And in theory a production can combine TAICCA’s co-investment with the 30% tax rebate for international productions using Taiwan as a location. To date half a dozen projects have used Taiwan’s International Co-funding Program (TICP) and another round of awards is expected to be announced within a month.
The marketing subsidy, covering 30% of overseas promotional costs, can be seen as an alternative to the co-investment scheme, or as a fallback for projects which for some reason have failed the investment tests. In this case, there is two-step disbursement, and no requirement to repay the TAICCA grant.
In other instances, TAICCA has initiated the marketing efforts. One of its first initiatives was at the 2019 Venice festival where it showcased Taiwanese VR works, content creators and hardware manufacturers, including HTC, which makes VR hardware and has produced VR films through its Vive Studios. At Singapore’s Asian Television Forum in December 2020, TAICCA operated an umbrella stand for 37 companies and 90 titles.
TAICCA has also indulged in enterprise funding, where it directly injects cash into individual companies or corporate expansion. Last year, TAICCA took an equity stake in Screenworks Asia, a production studio being launched by Taiwanese streaming firm Catchplay. In recent weeks, TAICCA announced that it had invested in the building of a studio by Awesomeworks, which will be specialized in shooting medical scenes.
“Taiwanese studios are creative, just like in Korea. But here the companies are much smaller than in Korea. A project’s value may be greater than their corporate capital,” says Ting. “That’s where we provide a helping hand.”
The agency also co-ordinates with the much older Taiwan Film and Audiovisual Institute, whose mission is focused on film, TV and audio restoration and archiving.
“Our role is to help Taiwanese people look back at our history, and to develop knowledge overseas,” says Lan Tsu-Wei, chairman of the TFAI. “Taiwanese films got into the world market in the 1980s and 1990s, but have been largely ignored since then. We hope to reverse that process.”
In the earlier period, Taiwan was identified with big name directors including Lee, Hou Hsiao-hsien and the late Edward Yang. Film production volume was also much higher than in the early part of the 21st century, when feature film output has averaged around 20-30 titles per year.
Significantly, Taiwan’s exceptional track record in keeping coronavirus at bay – it has recorded less than 1,000 infections for population of over 26 million people – allowed film productions picked up. Fully 71 films were produced in Taiwan last year, making it the third most productive territory in the world. “That represents a big chance for Taiwan to succeed,” says Lan.