“The Teenage Psychic” is one of the many quality TV dramas from Taiwan winning new legions of fans across Asia. (Photo courtesy of HBO Asia)
A steady stream of high-quality dramas is testament to the vibrancy of Taiwan’s TV and film industry.
The best Taiwan television dramas and films take center stage at the Golden Bell and Horse awards in September and November, respectively, each year. “The Teenage Psychic,” a TV series endorsed by President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), bagged two trophies while “The Great Buddha+” collected five.
Such offerings reflect the rising reputation of local production outfits for tapping into the zeitgeist and bringing entertaining and relevant stories to the screen. This has not gone unnoticed outside the country, with major entertainment industry players like U.S.-based HBO and Netflix adding Taiwan-made content to programming schedules.
Jonathan Spink, chief executive officer of HBO Asia, sang the praises of “The Teenage Psychic” at the Golden Bell Awards. “Great writing, a great story, wonderful directing, fantastic casting,” he said while collecting the trophy for best miniseries. “Really, this has been about the talent that was in the show.”
Produced by Taipei City-headquartered Public Television Service (PTS), Spink’s Singapore-based broadcast network and IFA Media—also headquartered in the city-state—the six-episode series shot entirely in Taiwan centers on a 16-year-old female high school student with psychic abilities. It is the first homegrown program developed under the cooperative arrangement, and chalked up strong ratings and reviews after airing in early April 2017 on PTS and HBO Asia in 23 markets across the region.
PTS is hardly a stranger to commercial success and critical acclaim when it comes to locally made TV dramas. In 2017, the broadcaster churned out an impressive 15 award-nominated productions, with “The Long Goodbye” winning best television film at the Golden Bell Awards. The tale of a middle-aged man returning home from the U.S. to take care of a friend’s funeral arrangements tugged on the heartstrings of viewers nationwide and translated into ratings gold.
No less impressive is “Crystal Boys,” a 20-episode series detailing the trials and tribulations of a group of gay men in 1970s Taipei. The show’s best series honor at the 2003 Golden Bell Awards was widely seen at the time as in keeping with the growing acceptance of the LGBT community in Taiwan society.
Yu Pei-hua (於蓓華), director of PTS’s Program Department, said since the government-supported broadcaster was established in 1998 with the mission of catering to Taiwan’s various demographics and promoting the distinct culture of the country, it has maintained an open-minded approach to the stories featured in its dramas. “Most series handle safe topics and stand a strong chance of turning a profit. We like to think of PTS shows as outside this equation and capable of triggering debate and dialogue by addressing pressing social issues.”
According to Yu, a surprise hit for PTS in this vein was the 2015 drama “Wake Up” and its 2017 sequel “Wake Up 2.” The original six-episode show, which documented the struggles of a young anesthesiologist pressured into taking responsibility for the death of a patient on the operating table, picked up four trophies at the 50th Golden Bell Awards.
“‘Wake Up’ was almost too close to home for many viewers,” Yu said, citing the experiences of those who have faced the prospect of losing a loved one at the hands of overworked medical personnel. “The portrayal of the profession was incredibly vivid and true to life.”
Equally dedicated to crafting compelling content is Taipei-based Q Place, a studio founded in 2011 by celebrated writer-director Wang Shau-di (王小棣) and seven of her peers like Chen Yu-hsun (陳玉勳), Chu Yu-ning (瞿友寧) and Tsai Ming-liang (蔡明亮), winner of best picture for “Vive L’Amour” at the 1994 Venice Film Festival.
“We’re putting our experience, expertise and money behind projects that are raising the bar for Taiwan dramas,” she said. “The final product is another feather in the cap of the industry.”
The studio’s first large-scale undertaking comprised eight TV series spanning the genres of biography, family, horror, romance and thriller. Quick to recognize the potential of Q Place and the 52-episode venture, the Ministry of Culture and Taipei-headquartered Ethos Original Co. committed NT$68 million (US$2.27 million) and NT$70 million (US$2.33 million), respectively, in funding.
Four of the dramas earned nominations at the 2017 Golden Bell Awards, with “Close Your Eyes Before It’s Dark” winning best television series. The suspenseful story details the experiences of eight longtime friends who unearth an old scandal while holidaying at a mountain cabin. Along with the seven other Q Place dramas, the series is available worldwide through Netflix.
Taiwan cinema is also enjoying its time in the sun on the back of productions like “The Assassin” by revered local director Hou Hsiao-hsien (侯孝賢). The 2015 art house movie about a female assassin during the Tang dynasty (618-907) captured the imagination of international cinephiles and saw Hou honored with the best director award at the Cannes Film Festival in May the same year.
“The Great Buddha+” by Huang Hsin-yao (黃信堯), which earned the 20-year veteran of documentary making the best new director honor at the 2017 Golden Horse Awards, is the latest quality production flying the flag for the country. The dark comedy follows two friends—a night security guard and recyclables collector—as they navigate a voyeuristic netherworld.
Professor Liao Gene-fon (廖金鳳), chair of the Department of Motion Picture at National Taiwan University of Arts, said “The Great Buddha+” is one of the few movies in recent years to tackle the issue of social inequality in Taiwan. “The black-and-white film is an impressive first-time feature for Huang and prompts viewers to reflect deeply on the contentious subject matter.”
According to Liao, other celluloid pieces putting Taiwan society under the microscope to similarly good effect include “Godspeed” by Chung Mong-hong (鍾孟宏) in 2016 and “Thanatos, Drunk” by Chang Tso-chi (張作驥) in 2015. “I saw great artistic value as well as the directors’ concern for humanity in these films,” he said.
“Godspeed” is a multigenre effort centering on the relationship between a taxi driver and an unlikely drug courier as they motor to southern Taiwan, while “Thanatos, Drunk” depicts two brothers and their alcoholic mother living in an old house on the fringe of Taipei. Liao described the former as “intriguing” due to its powerful imagery and vivid color palette owing much to Chung’s extensive experience directing TV commercials. But he considers the latter “outstanding” on the strength of its sophisticated characterization and dogged portrayal of life’s harsh realities.
Another filmmaker Liao is quick to single out for high praise is Myanmar-born director Midi Zhao (趙德胤) of “The Road to Mandalay” fame. Winner of the Federation of Film Critics of Europe and the Mediterranean award for best movie at the 73rd Venice International Film Festival, the 2016 release chronicles the lives of a young man and woman as they travel illegally from Myanmar to Thailand. A relationship soon develops between the pair, but their expectations for the future diverge: The man wants to return to his native Myanmar, while the woman wishes to move to Taiwan.
This is the fourth feature film by Zhao, who emigrated to Taiwan from Myanmar in 1998 at age 16 and is now a Republic of China (Taiwan) national. His 2014 effort “Ice Poison” represented Taiwan in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 87th Academy Awards.
But not all of the country’s talented directors specialize in contemplative stories. Associate professor Yeh Chi-ku (葉基固), chair of the Department of Radio, Television and Film at Shih Hsin University in Taipei, is bullish on the prospects of Cheng Wei-hao (程偉豪), who rose to prominence in 2015 with “The Tag-Along” and its 2017 sequel “The Tag-Along 2.”
Inspired by the urban legend of a ghostly girl in a red dress who leads people to remote mountainous areas, the horror films performed well at the domestic box office. The second installment, which was the highest grossing local movie of 2017 at nearly NT$105 million (US$3.5 million) and earned three Golden Horse Awards nominations, had its rights sold in 19 markets such as Australia, Germany, Malaysia and the U.S.
“The genre seems to be catching on in Taiwan,” Yeh said. “Credit for this fast-emerging trend can most likely be placed squarely at the feet of directors like Cheng.”
With the true believers at PTS, Q Place and a host of other Taiwan production houses keeping their noses to the grindstone, audiences at home and abroad can look forward to more TV and film productions like “The Teenage Psychic” and “The Great Buddha+” gracing their screens.
“We’ll keep working hard and doing justice to the many good stories and industry talents in Taiwan,” Wang said. “Hitting new highs in the artistic and commercial stakes is best for business and reflects well on the country.”