Big Screen Shrinking

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NISID HAJARILike stale canapes and bad French, films from Taiwan are now staples of the international festival circuit. Each year seems to produce another spare, painterly elegy to urban anomie that speaks of the island's persistent questions of identity; Western critics routinely hail the works with raves and awards. Such films, however, find a more muted reception at home. At the first annual Taipei Film Festival--which kicks off this Saturday thanks partly to municipal authorities eager to profit from the industry's overseas cachet--only two homegrown features are included among the 38 films on the schedule.Even sadder is the fact that this is about the only place many Taiwan residents may ever see these treasures. The accolades won by auteurs like Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang have not translated into box-office success in Taiwan where, as they do elsewhere, Hollywood blockbusters gobble up most of the market. As Taiwan moviegoers look to less rarefied fare for their entertainment, the island's film industry is in danger of collapsing under the weight of its own artistic success.Many directors trace the decline to 1989, when Hou's moving A City of Sadness became the first Taiwan film to win a major international award (a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival). Until then the island had churned out nearly 200 films a year--at first mostly cloying romances and then, as Hong Kong shoot-'em-ups began to pack moviehouses across Asia, more hard-edged fare. A City of Sadness signaled the crumbling of political censorship in the former dictatorship. (The film deals with the Kuomintang suppression of native Taiwanese during the postwar years, a once-taboo subject.) It also unleashed a flood of slow-paced, brainy films calculated to appeal to discerning filmgoers in the West and Japan. The Malaysian-born Tsai--often cited as the leading light of the second generation of Taiwan's New Cinema--has in six years crafted an emblematic oeuvre: creepy (and creeping) tableaux, where nearly silent characters eke out their angst in the most mundane of acts. Two of his four atmospheric films have taken home major awards--including The River, which won a 1996 Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.But who's watching? The Variety review of Tsai's most recent production, The Hole, addresses the question in curt yet elegant fashion: Although Tsai's bold vision ... will be compulsive viewing for Asian cinema buffs, [the] film's minimalist dramatics make this a marginal commercial entity internationally. The Hollywood Reporter is even more to the point: At widest, U.S. distribution might be cloistered around art houses in metropolitan areas with significant Asian-American populations. The reach of these prestige projects extends no further in Taiwan itself, where filmgoers have proven themselves as disinterested as their Western counterparts in highbrow, challenging (some would say dull) works. I really prefer American movies because they are very active and emotive, says Taipei restaurant owner Steven Ho. I liked Free Willy.PAGE 1  |  
The sheer volume of Hollywood product has in turn squeezed local talent off screens. Last year only 29 films were shot in Taiwan; 259 were imported, 95% of those American. The media barons who control distribution across the island have little incentive to direct their profits toward movie producers, especially when video and cable TV have eaten away at theater audiences. Businessmen are not willing to spend money on production, but only on setting up more cable networks, says filmmaker Chen Kuo-fu, festival director of this year's tff. Government funding cannot make up the difference. Authorities sponsor 10 local films each year with grants of $290,000 apiece. Officials also say they are planning to earmark two Taipei theaters for screening local fare only. But the demands of filmmakers like Chen and Tsai's longtime producer, Peggy Chiao, go well beyond financial support. The government never had a very clear policy of dealing with the film industry, complains Chiao. They are not able to deal with films as culture, or even as business. Both Chiao and Chen call for authorities to sponsor a national film school, as well as a commission composed of filmmakers, critics and academics to select worthy projects.At the same time, filmmakers have begun to seek out new sources of funding and distribution on their own--signing up European and Japanese backers, as Tsai did to finance The Hole; promoting the use of dual-ticket coupons in theaters that show both Taiwanese and Hollywood movies; lobbying for more local content on public television. But few are optimistic, even given the new festival. The whole thing is going to disappear unless it is a big success this year, which I doubt, predicts Chiao. Sadly, Taiwan's glittering art films may not be far behind.  |  PAGE 2