Strengthening Taiwan’s Soft Power Infrastructure

The director and cast of the 2008 film Cape No. 7 at a press event to promote the movie. Photo: CNA

Revitalizing the creative industries could raise Taiwan’s global profile and boost the economy.

 In late 2001, Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hisen’s new film Millennium Mambo opened in Paris cinemas with great fanfare. MK2, one of France’s top independent film companies, showed the film in its Paris theaters alongside big Hollywood productions such as David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums.

Millennium Mambo is a departure from Hou’s usual historical works, focusing instead on disaffected youth in contemporary Taipei. The plot meanders, as in most of Hou’s films, but exquisite cinematography makes up for it. In the role of adrift nightclub hostess Vicky, Taiwanese actress Shu Qi shines. She’s effervescent, glamorous, even melancholic. Realistic early-2000s nightclub scenes, where the characters shout to be heard over pounding electronic dance music, will resonate with erstwhile Taipei partygoers.

The art-cinema glitterati didn’t mind Millennium Mambo’s thin storyline either. The film not only won three prizes – including best cinematography – at Taiwan’s own Golden Horse Awards, it also picked up awards at the Cannes, Chicago, and Flanders film festivals.

Director Hou Hsiao-hsien and actress Shu Qi at ceremonies in Cannes, France in 2001 honoring the film Millennium Mambo. Photo: CNA

Today, it is rare that a Taiwanese film does as well as Millennium Mambo in international film festivals. Taiwan’s once-prolific art-film output has ebbed. For her part, Shu Qi has become one of Asia’s top actresses – starring primarily in mainland Chinese productions. She appeared in the 2013 film Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, one of the highest grossing Chinese films of all time.

Taiwanese movies have never reached a mainstream audience globally, yet the art-house success of directors like Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tsai Ming-liang and the late Edward Yang put Taiwan on the map as a source of creative filmmaking. Meanwhile, Taiwanese television and pop music did cross over to the mainstream in Asia. From the 1970s to 1990s, the virtuoso late pop singer Teresa Teng recorded songs in Mandarin, Hokkien, Cantonese, and Japanese, winning her millions of fans across the region.

Recapturing and expanding the cultural soft power it once enjoyed would raise Taiwan’s global profile, allowing it to sidestep some of the obstacles created by its lack of official diplomatic relations. At the same time, vigorous support for the creative industries could activate a long-dormant driver of economic growth.

Reviving the entertainment sector will be challenging. The industry has struggled with funding amid high production costs. Government support has been lackluster compared to South Korea and China, whose entertainment industries have surged in recent years.

The right financing model

In line with the government’s Forward-looking Infrastructure Development Program (FLIDP), the Ministry of Culture (MOC) has recommended to the Executive Yuan that at least NT$12 billion (US$400 million) be raised – from both public and private investors – to upgrade Taiwan’s digital arts, culture, and entertainment sector. Thus far, the government has only budgeted NT$2 billion for overall digital infrastructure.

In a December interview with the Chinese-language publication Taiwan Banker, MOC Minister Cheng Li-chiun emphasized that Taiwan has a strong foundation on which to grow its entertainment industry. For instance, the film Cape No. 7 (released in 2008) earned NT$530 million at the box office, an excellent performance for a domestic film.

Director Wei Te-sheng used proceeds from Cape No. 7 to fund his then stalled four-and-a-half-hour historical epic Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale. That film cost NT$700 million to $750 million to make, but managed to earn NT$880 million in domestic ticket sales. It took home numerous Golden Horse Awards in 2011, competed in the 68th Venice International Film Festival, and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

Taiwan also has produced a number of successful contemporary television programs, including Wake Up 2, The Teenage Psychic, and the Q series, Cheng said.

Access to sufficient financing will be imperative to develop the entertainment industry. Producers need deeper pockets to create high production-value content with global reach, says Feng Chien-san, a journalism professor at National Cheng-Chi University (NCCU). “The government’s hands-off approach to entertainment and culture has allowed foreign players [who are well capitalized] to dominate the industry,” he says. “If we want to create high-quality content of our own, we need the government to lead the way by building the right financing model.”

At the same time, skeptical private investors must be persuaded of those investments’ merits. “Many Taiwanese investors, who are used to physical assets, have no idea how to determine the value of cultural and creative content,” says Hank Huang, president of the Taiwan Academy of Banking and Finance (TABF), a training and research institute.

France has successfully funded television and film production with a “big financing model,” Feng observes. The French model uses 11% of annual movie box-office revenue and 5.5% of annual television revenue to finance the development of entertainment content.

In 2016, France’s National Center of Cinematography (NCC) and the Moving Image, an agency of the French Ministry of Culture, raised €784.5 million to support film, television and related projects. That included €355.9 million for movies, €294.6 million for television, €20 million for digital technology and €114.0 million for cross-functional initiatives.

Three French taxes assigned directly to the NCC finance the support fund; the taxes are on movie-ticket sales, television services, and video on demand, respectively.

“The French model is good – it offers stable resources you can use to invest in developing the industry,” Feng says. Yet the Ministry of Finance reportedly does not support the French model, Feng notes.

Jason Hsu, a Chinese Nationalist Party legislator, urges the government to focus on exporting entertainment content. “We need to differentiate ourselves, develop intellectual property, and distribute it across the world,” he says.

That will require looking beyond China – a favorite destination of Taiwanese creatives – where political tensions with the ruling Democratic Progressive Party could imperil the distribution of Taiwanese television programs and films. On December 31, the Guangdong Province government removed the Taiwanese television show My Dear Boy from Chinese video-streaming platforms after just two episodes. Chinese officials reportedly took the show off the air because it had received funding from Taiwan’s MOC, which Beijing described as “pro-independence sponsorship.”

The studio of the show’s producer Ruby Lin refuted the pro-independence allegations. According to the English-language Taipei Times, a January 7 statement released by Lin’s studio said that she “has never supported and will never support any pro-independence discourses or actions.”

My Dear Boy returned to Chinese video-streaming platforms shortly after the statement was released.

“Taiwan’s entertainment industry should not rely on China’s audio-visual market as its major source of income,” NCCU’s Feng says. “But since the government won’t ban exports, individuals can operate in China at their own risk.”

Finding a niche

In Hsu’s view, the presence of global film studios in Taiwan would give a big boost to the local entertainment industry. He suggests that the government offer incentives to international studios, such as favorable tax rates, to set up post-production centers on the island. Perks would be conditional on the hiring of local talent, who are known for their strong audio-video editing skills, he adds.

Television director Roger Christiansen, who splits his time between Los Angeles and Shanghai and previously taught at National Taipei University of the Arts in 2003-2004 on a Fulbright fellowship, encourages Taiwan to focus on good storytelling. “Good stories transcend specific markets,” he says. “Find stories we all relate to. Good stories become good films that are naturally suited for export.”

Additionally, Christiansen suggests that Taiwan create a large-scale national competition for different types of web-based entertainment, such as animation, video shorts, music videos and games, with a panel of international judges to evaluate the content. “Almost like the TV show Taiwan’s Got Talent,” he says.

Ultimately, to rejuvenate the entertainment sector, Taiwan should work with a diverse consortium of industry professionals from both within the country and outside, Christiansen says. “Fresh ideas are needed to move forward,” he emphasizes.

In the long run, producing world-class content could make Taiwan a household name worldwide, like Japan. In the 1980s and 1990s, Japanese game consoles conquered America. Many middle-class American families had a Nintendo entertainment system, a Sega Genesis, or both. The fictional feline character Hello Kitty further bolstered Japan’s soft power clout, bringing the nation’s kawaii (cute) culture to the world.

More recently, South Korea has become a soft-power juggernaut on the back of its TV dramas and K-Pop music. “Gangnam Style,” a single by South Korean musician Psy, reached No. 1 in the charts of more than 30 countries in 2012 and won Best Video at the MTV Europe Video Music Awards that year. Today, some K-pop groups are popular enough in the West to sell out stadium shows in both the United States and Canada.

In the University of Southern California’s Soft Power 30 2017 Global Ranking, Japan was No. 6 with a score of 71.66 while South Korea was 21st with a score of 58.40, virtually at parity with No. 20 Singapore (58.55). No other Asian countries were ranked.

Hopefully, Taiwan will appear on that list one day, and sooner rather than later. In her interview with The Taiwan Banker, Culture Minister Cheng struck a sanguine note.  “Boosting awareness of Taiwan’s cultural and artistic virtues and deepening its links with the rest of the world are what we will strive for,” she said.