This chapter investigates an ongoing geopolitical shift concerning the status of festivals in Taiwan—exemplified by the Taipei Film Festival and the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival and Awards—and their future challenges instigated by the global pandemic. I consider film festivals in Taiwan to be lurking on the “periphery” and argue they should not be prescribed as secondary and unnoticed (in terms of prestige and influences). Instead, we need to identify the center (Western Europe and wealthy North America) versus the periphery paradigm in which the global festival circuit continued to reinforce power relations where mid- or lower-ranking film festivals had to wrestle with the hierarchy of status. This chapter begins by tracing how the pandemic preparedness in Taiwan allowed most Taiwanese film festivals to conduct business as usual. Yet this local advantage—abetted by the country’s history and political dissension with the People’s Republic of China (PRC)—is impeded by the collateral implications from disrupted festivals worldwide. The impacts of Covid-19 continue to further expose the unequal power relations within the globalized festival network, despite the survival and strife for the success of mid-level and regional film festivals.
- Taipei Film Festival
- Golden Horse
Amid the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, film festivals around the world were either canceled, postponed, downsized, or pivoted to online or hybrid delivery. However, the 22nd Taipei Film Festival, in 2020, was the first in-person event to be held worldwide after the outbreak. Festival goers in Taiwan were able to attend the annual Taipei Film Festival as usual from June 25th to July 11th in the historical building of Zhongshan Hall in Taipei City. It was fortunate that all film screenings, side events, and the awards ceremony took place as scheduled; this was in large part due to the country’s success in containing the fast-spreading Covid-19 and the geopolitical implications of its success.
As Julian Stringer (2016) points out, issues relating to film festivals’ time (history) and space (geography) are vital to understanding power relations in the international film festival circuit: “it is necessary … [to] consider where film festivals have (or have not) been set up and where they have (or have not) flourished” (34). Many scholars have written about the rapid advancement of film festivals in the Asia region, and between the rivalry and mutual imitation of port-city festivals (Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo, and Busan), these festivals come across as not just major players in the region, but as a one-stop destination for film markets, especially trade events on the global stage (Iordanova 2011, 1–33; Davis and Yeh 2008; Lee and Stringer 2012, 239–61). Outside of the Sinophone community, little attention has been given to festivals in Taiwan. Part of the reason was that these festivals were either too specialized (including only catering to the local community) or simply not comparable in regard to “programming, publications, and screenings”Footnote 1 (Davis and Yeh 2008, 145)—namely, they lack extensive production-oriented events that purposely service film professionals, from buyers and distributors to producers, programmers, and more.
In light of this, this chapter investigates an ongoing geopolitical shift concerning the status of festivals in Taiwan—exemplified by the Taipei Film Festival and the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival and Awards—and their future challenges instigated by the global pandemic. I consider film festivals in Taiwan to be lurking on the “periphery” and argue they should not be prescribed as secondary and unnoticed (in terms of prestige and influences). Instead, we need to identify the center (Western Europe and wealthy North America) versus the periphery paradigm in which the global festival circuit continued to reinforce power relations where mid- or lower-ranking film festivals had to wrestle with the hierarchy of status. This chapter begins by tracing how the pandemic preparedness in Taiwan allowed most Taiwanese film festivals to conduct business as usual. Yet this local advantage—abetted by the country’s history and political dissension with the People’s Republic of China (PRC)—is impeded by the collateral implications from disrupted festivals worldwide. It is further impeded by the powerhouse status of A-list festivals, which remain unshaken. I argue that, while film festivals in Taiwan may not have been able to take on a more dominant role in the international circuit, they benefit indirectly from a revived interest in Taiwan cinema, both domestically and internationally.
Pandemic Preparedness in Taiwan
Writing in early 2021, while many countries worldwide are experiencing a fresh spike in Covid-19 cases intensified by the second wave, Taiwan has so far been able to avoid large-scale lockdown measures that are stalling the film industries in so many places. Seen as a global leader for its effective response to the coronavirus, Taiwan, an island-nation of 23 million, has had a total of fewer than 1100 confirmed cases, 10 deaths, and a record of more than 250 days without a locally transmitted case throughout 2020. Safe to say, the pandemic had minimal impact on Taiwan’s film festival circuit. Much of the efforts to contain the situation include closing borders early and travel regulations. Other measures include a central response command center, rigorous contact tracing, enforcing quarantine and GPS tracking for all travelers, and a strict mandatory mask-wearing policy. Further, Taiwan’s experience with SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) 17 years ago resulted in a chain of actions and infrastructural overhaul, thereby helping the country’s pandemic preparedness, including governmental reorganization, the medical care system, and increased public engagement—the latter especially swayed public compliance with the mask-wearing policy.
Standing at the margins of international socio-political exclusion, Taiwan’s conflict with China played a pivotal role in the island’s assessment and the effectiveness of its actions in preventing a large-scale epidemic. To briefly unpack the China-Taiwan relations, the divide over Taiwan’s status has resulted in constant tension and political conflicts between the island and mainland, mainly because the Chinese Communist Party has relentlessly claimed sovereignty over Taiwan since the Chinese Nationalists retreated to Taiwan in 1949. Commonly known as the “two China conflict,” the controversy regarding Taiwan’s political status can be glimpsed from its deliberate use of ambiguous/diplomatic names, such as “Taiwan, China” or “Chinese Taipei” when referring to Taiwan in international events. The decades-long political instability between China and Taiwan faces more challenges when Tsai Ing-wen, who leads the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, was elected as the first female president of Taiwan in 2016, and China has been vexing commercial and cultural exchanges across the strait ever since.Footnote 2
Without a doubt, Taiwan’s swift response had to do with the government’s preemptive view against China, at a time when Beijing and the World Health Organization (WHO) were minimizing the threat of the virus. When Taiwan’s health officials learned about a case of pneumonia of unknown cause in Wuhan at the start of the outbreak and alerted the WHO, Taiwan was dismissed by the organization that backed Chinese officials’ statement by insisting there was “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission” (France24 2020; World Health Organization 2020). This discrepancy has since, in part, become a political battle between China and the U.S., in which the Trump administration not only threatened to cut funding for the WHO, the U.S. at one point issued a formal withdrawal of membership from the organization. Meanwhile, researchers at John Hopkins University initially projected that Taiwan would have one of the world’s worst outbreaks due to the island’s proximity to China via air travel (Gardner 2020). According to these researchers, cities that have heavy-traffic direct or indirect flights from Wuhan were at the highest risk, and based on flight data, experts estimated that Taiwan would have to cope with the second-highest number of imported virus cases just after Thailand. Despite these projections, Taiwan was able to defy the odds and keep the coronavirus contained.
Given that the country had avoided major lockdowns, these conditions have allowed the Taipei Film Festival (TFF) and the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival and Awards (hereafter the Golden Horse) to go ahead as in-person events in 2020. In what follows, I will briefly sketch out the history and backdrop of these two festivals, outline how the pandemic presents unique and different challenges to both, and account for the ways in which each handled the situation. These two film festivals are not only among the list of the longest-running events in Taiwan, each operating on a different scale and vision (TFF, a city festival, versus the Golden Horse, a glamorous, high-profile industry event akin to the Oscars or Cannes). Both have made a significant contribution to the sustainability and vitality of Taiwan cinema, especially by “keeping local film talents afloat when the industry was at its lowest ebb” (Rawnsley 2016, 384).
Taipei Film Festival: Where Government Is a Stakeholder
TFF, as one of the leading critical cultural events in Taiwan, has long been branded as a city festival that strategically positions itself as the nexus between Taipei and other global cities as a way to withstand Taiwan’s political isolation (Chen 2011, 142–53). Founded in 1998 by the oldest evening newspaper in Taiwan, the festival—formerly called the China Times Express Film Awards—is subsidized through a combination of public and private sectors, with 60% of its support coming from government funding (after its partnership with Taipei City Council and semi-privatization under the Taipei Culture Foundation in 2007). TFF typically screens around 110 films over the course of three weeks each year, with an average of 43,000 viewers (Davis 2020). Unlike the New York Film Festival, which sets itself apart as a non-competitive festival, TFF was founded with a mission in mind to increase local independent film production. TFF was not only recognized as Taiwan’s first urban film festival, but it also positioned itself as catering to young, hipster audiences who are interested in independent and non-mainstream cinema, aiming to brand itself as a major rival to the Golden Horse—the largest festival in Taiwan established to boost the Chinese-language film industry in the region. TFF would, using Dina Iordanova’s definition of the festival’s six essential functions, fall under the bracket of the film festival’s attempt to “counter-balance nationalist tendencies” with world cinema (2011, 20).
In recent years, TFF has moved away from the city festival image onto sites of commerce and cultural exchange. In 2005, the festival introduced a new competition category called “the International New Talent Competition,” which was at the time the only festival in the country with a competing category for international feature films (as opposed to Golden Horse’s sole attention to Chinese-language films). To promote the production of Taiwan cinema, the festival partnered with the Festival of the Three Continents (Festival des Trois Continents) in France and initiated a project development workshop. Those who were lucky enough to be selected for participation would be guided through the process of proposal writing, budgeting, production planning, and so on. TFF’s endeavors in cultivating cinephile culture and commitment to new talents are instrumental in promoting the local film industry, and their efforts are certainly not trivial, as shown in collaboration with notable international film festivals. These exertions should be enough to recognize TFF as a node in a transnational network. Yet, the festival is still lacking in qualifying international visibility, what Yun-hua Chen describes as “a large but still minor-ranking film festival” on the film festival world map (2011, 142).
There are many explanations of why TFF has not been considered a focal event in the festival circuit. First, TFF is not accredited by FIAPF (the International Federation of Film Producers Associations) and therefore not “officially” indexed in the film festivals directory to attract serious crowds or a steady flow of international journalists for publicity and coverage. Second, the festival is running on a relatively meager, non-competing budget, reported around US$ 1.5 million per year (Yu 2015), a drastic contrast to Busan International Film Festival’s almost ten times more figure at US$ 10 million. Third, TFF’s award ceremony origin (of which the Golden Horse also shares a similar trajectory, discussed later in this article) prompted some scholars to reject studying it as festivals, calling it “exhibitions” instead (Iordanova 2011, 12). The argument to disavow a festival citing linguistic consideration is rather objectionable: the Mandarin term ying zhang can be literally translated to “audiovisual exhibition,” and yet in common usage, the term is without a doubt synonymous with “film festival.” Here, I would like to offer another possible explanation: TFF’s low international visibility appears to be hindered by the kinship between TFF and Taipei City Council. The city government plays a role in overseeing and dictating the film festival and its artistic direction.
Taiwanese scholars, film critics, festival reporters, and festival staff have repeatedly spoken against the bureaucratic system and argued that their “task-based” administrative procedures constrain the creativity of a film festival (Hao-Chun Yang, personal interview, December 22, 2020). Yun-hua Chen (2011) writes: “the bureaucratic system … lacks the strategic vision and the sustainable policy” thus undermines the linkages with other global cities (143). Between 2002 and 2015, the festival’s main slate was “City Focus,” showcasing international films and featured talks and roundtable discussions based on selected cities. This program was established by Lung Ying-tai, the then Chief of Taipei City Cultural Affairs. Several film critics and festival directors (e.g., Steven Tu, Wen Tien-hsiang) were skeptical of the city focus programming from the start, claiming audiences were not particularly interested in narrowly defined on-screen representations of global cities and that a city festival should focus more on its own urban space (Hung 2013) rather than blindly follow the upper administration that often has a blatantly political agenda (Wen 2006). This sentiment became prophetic in two subsequent affairs: first, a dispute between the festival’s steering committee and the city council ultimately attracted an explosion of media attention and public opinions to the incestuous relationship between TFF and the city council (Public Television Service 2015); and second, the City Focus program came to an end in 2016. The end of the City Focus program signals a new direction for the festival, embarking on a new era with new leadership. Apart from a domino effect of core staff and board members resigning from the festival in 2015, rejection of City Council’s meddling also sparked discussions and debates about the political structure between the economics of film festivals and public sectors, as well as urging TFF to reorient itself as a new festival hub in the South-East Asia region. Currently, TFF runs without a director of programming but a team of programmers instead.
The government-backed nature of TFF has drawn a lot of criticism from the public. The Taipei Culture Foundation, which co-finances TFF, is a nonprofit organization incorporated by the city council. This means that as an extended executive branch of public authority, the foundation is expected to comply with government contracting procedures in terms of finance, service procurement, and commercial affairs. The Taipei Culture Foundation, however, is exempt from the same rules that govern state agencies; thus, the Foundation is able to operate flexibly both inside and outside the system. The Foundation is not only delegated to organize governmental events. It can also be authorized to manage state-owned enterprises, for example, the Taipei Arena,Footnote 3 resulting in major backlashes in the past.
Laying out the context and the history of TFF shows the peculiar intricacies between the government and the festival itself, where the government acts as a stakeholder and holds the festival at arm’s length. About 40% of TFF’s staff functions as (and enjoys the benefits of) civil service employees, but like most festivals around the world, TFF also relies heavily on volunteers and programmers who are hired on a contingent basis, resulting in team members being shuffled between festivals like nomadic workers. If the vulnerabilities in the film festival ecosystem exposed by the pandemic are ultimately the issue of economic crisis, as Marijke de Valck (2020, 125–35) suggests, it appears TFF, for the time being, has the government as a safety net to fall back on.
The decision to go ahead with an in-person format of the festival in 2020, committed only a month before the event, was, of course, a complicated process and ultimately a collective, unanimous decision among executive staff members themselves. Before reaching the final decision, the staff went back and forth between the uncertainty about the pandemic situation and daily conversations about whether they would have other options that go beyond cancelation or postponement (Katrina Hsieh, personal interview, December 18, 2020). When asked about how they came to a decision, TFF director Li Ya-mei (2021) shared that the first thing she considered was whether the festival could handle massive financial loss should the festival be canceled at the last minute. Her challenge was, if they carried on with their planning, arranged all travel and lodging for their international guests, paid out their vendors, cleared all the screening rights, and so on, could they absorb the financial losses, and still have enough cash reserve to handle the withdraw situation, in the event that the government shut down their festival the day before. The good news was, after thorough calculation, Li concluded that the festival would survive even if they had to take the financial hit. During the deliberation, Li (2021) also mentioned the problem of co-dependency with the government, suggesting the lack of autonomy in organizing and steering the film festival: because the city government has financial and artistic persuasions over TFF, Li was waiting for the Taipei City Cultural Affairs to green-light the event and to iron out the details for health and safety protocols should the physical event take place. The Taipei City Cultural Affairs, on the other hand, did not want to take full responsibility and deflated the situation to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, assuming that the Ministry would have the final word because of the pandemic. The issue bounced off between the two public sectors for some time, until the Taiwanese government lifted restrictions on cinemas and social gatherings, enabling TFF to proceed with ticket sales for screenings without implementing social distancing seating (which would drastically cut their income revenue of ticket sales by half).
During the event, TFF remained largely unaffected by the pandemic situation other than a few necessary protocols, such as mask-wearing, recording attendees’ names for contact tracing, and withdrawing their invites to international guests (due to entry restrictions for foreigners). Apart from the 142 films they featured, they continued to expand their virtual reality (VR) selections—a relatively new program that was just introduced in 2018. It would appear TFF was fortunate enough to have avoided the global crisis.
When Update Failed
Wendy Hui Kyong Chun (2016), who famously proposed the radical concept “updating to remain the same” in the digital world, wrote about new media and the paradoxical relationship individuals have with the presumably unbounded, free-flowing network called the Internet. Structured around her formula “habit + crisis = update,” Chun stipulates a habitual urgency, if not anxiety, for users to constantly update, or refresh, new media to stay connected and remain relevant to society. Drawing loosely from this analogy, the logic of Chun’s formula applies to many film festivals’ responses to the Covid-19 crisis: they scrambled to “remain the same,” so to speak, as the health and safety challenges presented by the pandemic forced them to convert to online platforms, go virtual, or experiment with hybrid forms. Since film festivals are never just about the films, the traditional festival form is particularly vulnerable in pandemic times (de Valck 2020). The “habitual experience” festivals on digital platforms tried to create, unsurprisingly, simulated traditional onsite festival encounters, such as limited access to screening tickets, socializing and networking in the market/industries events, real-time talks, Q&As, roundtable discussions, and so on. Sundance 2021 even went as far as offering an immersive socializing experience at its New Frontier section. Each digital avatar could wander through virtual film parties and interact with other people while exploring the latest VR project exhibition. Tracking how festivals “update” themselves by attempting to recreate interactive opportunities in their digital/virtual forms, de Valck acutely points out that these festivals were well aware that “when the purpose of a film festival surpasses the screening of films, the void that is left by the cancellation of physical events cannot be filled with online offerings exclusively” (129). The “updates” these festivals have made, moving from analog projection to the digital world, and even before the digital crisis, referring to cinema’s upgrades to DCP (digital cinema package) projection, bring to attention the creation of new habits, new patterns, and different capacity of mobility and accessibility (not everyone has the same access to technology), brought forth by the outbreak’s disruptions.
Not having to “update” to “remain the same,” TFF’s unaltered format generates a different kind of concern: moving forward, TFF may have missed the chance of overhauling its infrastructure and the opportunity to experiment with online streaming delivery and virtual experience many other festivals adopted to reinvent and reimagine themselves. And if it is not a missed opportunity, it signals a delayed response. Festival programmers do not just rely on unsolicited submission (in some instances, festivals and their programs are by invitation-only, for example, Cannes); they typically visit neighboring and other world-leading festival events for discovery, to check out new releases, network with distributors at industry events, and keep tabs on highlights and popular trends happening at the moment. A standard timeline for programmers working at TFF requires about half a year ahead for the selection process, starting with Busan and Tokyo in October, Rotterdam, and Berlinale in February, and the Hong Kong International Film Festival in March (Katrina Hsieh, personal interview, December 18, 2020). Facing all kinds of disruptions in the latter half of the year 2020, where many film festivals were either canceled or postponed, TFF programmers are worried about planning the upcoming event as a consequence of their limited accessibility to new releases. Take, for example, the Busan festival, which ran physically during the pandemic in 2020. In the case of Busan, the event had to be significantly downsized and dates were briefly pushed back; all ceremonies were canceled, as were receptions and industry network events. In the end, the event was restricted to South Korean residents. Even with these changes, there have been reports that for those who could attend, it was almost impossible to obtain film tickets due to cinemas being restricted to one-third maximum capacity with social distancing seating arrangements (Twanmu 2020).
The challenge is real for TFF 2021, as programmers were unable to attend some world film festivals they regularly visit in sourcing and selecting appropriate films for the next edition of TFF. Starting with Rotterdam 2021 in hybrid form. Its Pro Days and talks were entirely on an online platform (no geo-blocking), but only national and local audiences can attend the physical program. The Berlinale was in a similar setup: industry-related activities were held online in March 2021, while the screening event is being planned as a physical event to run in June. As for Hong Kong, the festival returned in April with a hybrid 45th edition that included both in-person and online screenings. As I write, Taiwan, once hailed as a success story, is now seeing a steep rise in Covid-19 cases. In response to the ongoing global health crisis, TFF has decided to postpone the 23rd edition to late September. Based on the changes and new practices that brought disruptions to TFF’s regular calendar of planning, there is no way to predict what will be coming this year, only to presume that in this ecosystem, no festivals operate entirely in a vacuum, no matter how small or minor, or whether it caters to niche markets. The impacts of Covid-19 continue to further expose the unequal power relations within the globalized festival network, as many researchers had previously pointed out. It thus reinforces global hierarchies and creates a chain reaction—despite the survival and strife for the success of mid-level and regional film festivals, they still have to work closely with top A-list festivals whose infrastructures are crumbling.
Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival: The Chinese-Language “Oscars”
The 2020 Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival was in a better position than TFF, with its standard running time slotted in the last quarter of the year. The Golden Horse, which started out as the oldest award ceremony in Chinese-language cinemas that dates back over 60 years, sparked the debate on whether to consider industry-staged public relations events like the Golden Horse as actual festivals (Iordanova 2011, 11–2). The Golden Horse has since evolved—from an award ceremony initiated by the government in 1962 in reaction to social and geopolitical needs (a soft power strategy to ostracize propaganda-inclined films from Communist China) to the expansion of three separate screening events throughout the year, known as the Big Horse (the major/primary film festival), the Small Horse (Fantastic Film Festival, specialized festival of the fantastic genre), and the Old Horse (Classic Film Festival, its retrospective program). To start, it is necessary to recognize the two sectors, awards ceremony and film festival, as two separate entities developed over different time periods, yet mutually co-dependent after the two events were merged in 1990.
The Golden Horse Awards Ceremony (hereafter GHA) enjoyed the nickname, the “Chinese Oscars,” because at inception it was modeled and imitated after Hollywood’s Academy Awards, especially by the variety of categories it offered for its main competition, as well as the live broadcasting format. The film selection process, however, is more akin to the Cannes Film Festival or the Berlinale. The Golden Horse uses a small team of judges who are chosen for their achievements in art and culture but are not necessarily film professionals. The current GHA operates a two-step judging process: first, the film industry’s unions and professionals can nominate candidates for the industrial and technical categories. After a list of nominees has been made, the jury committee evaluates the films and the talents to make their final decisions. Over time, the GHA has converted from rejecting films they believed prescribed certain communist political and ideological agendas to embracing Chinese-language cinemas from all origins. In 1992, the Taiwanese government approved the commercial screening of Chinese films from the PRC; by 1996, films and professionals from the PRC were permitted to enter the competition, according to the official statement released by the GHA: “all Chinese-language films, including Hokkien and other dialects, are eligible to submit regardless of production country, funding ratio or nationality of the crew” (Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival n.d.).
The festival component, introduced in 1980, started out as a non-specialized, non-competitive festival showcasing world cinema for Taiwanese audiences. Between 1980 and 1989, the festival was organized by the Chinese Taipei Film Archive (note the “Chinese Taipei” here; the place is now renamed as Taiwan Film Institute), before the GHA executive committee took over. Since its beginning, the festival runs two parallel lineups: the first screens Chinese-language films that include films shortlisted for nominations; the second is the non-competitive international exhibition platform. The former category appeals to audiences who either work in the film industry or are interested in viewing all nominated films before the awards ceremony. The latter lineup focuses on non-Chinese-language cinema as an attempt to foster and advocate a global community. The only caveat for the second lineup is that once selected, the film has to make the Golden Horse its provincial premiere site before it can be distributed in theaters in Taiwan. Both categories qualify for the Audience Choice Award, which is separate from the jury selection and is not considered part of the official competition for the award ceremony. Compared to the TFF, the Golden Horse is less dependent on state funding—only 40% of its total budget comes from central and local governmental budgets. The festival is run independently by a private-sector organization.
This chapter begins by stating that most film festivals in Taiwan ran physically in 2020 and the pandemic did not seem to alter too much of the planned events, but it does not mean there was no cancelation at all. A case in point is the Golden Horse Fantastic Film Festival (hereafter Fantastic Film)—as aforementioned, one of the sub-events of its parent festival—which was the first to announce its cancelation back in March, just a few days after the WHO declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. Following the Fantastic Film Festival’s decision, the Taiwan International Documentary Festival also announced its postponement; the event was moved from May 2020 to early spring in 2021. A few other smaller festivals in Taiwan made similar announcements, but it did not produce a chain effect. In fact, part of the reason TFF was able to move forward was that they observed and learned from Fantastic Film’s decision and thus decided to embrace the situation and its potential challenges rather than to give up months of their planned work. TFF’s senior program coordinator Katrina Hsieh relayed their concerns: (1) postponing was not an option because there were not a lot of vacant time slots left in the calendar year; and (2) they did not want to plan an event that was too close to the Golden Horse to steer clear of a scheduling conflict and direct competition for patrons (Katrina Hsieh, personal interview, December 18, 2020). Between moving forward or canceling the event entirely, they chose moving forward the physical event.
On the bright side, nothing was really lost by Fantastic Film’s cancelation, because its parent festival, the Golden Horse, moved most of the lineup to its main event in November, since all the films curated for Fantastic Film were cleared for screening and premiere rights. Apart from “saving” these films for the logistics and costs, the other reason for the Golden Horse’s programmers to combine the two lineups had to do with global impact: there were not a lot of new releases to choose from to begin with. The pandemic has drastically reduced the pool of selection for programmers in the past year; many distributors had decided to delay new releases or shift their strategy and move to a streaming platform entirely, for instance, Warner Bros.’s partnership with HBO Max. Some distributors, especially those whose films were art-house oriented, tended to hold out for the opportunity to premiere exclusively at A-list film festivals, at a time when festivals like Cannes were indecisive on whether to postpone, cancel, or move their festival online. Cannes’ premiere status, combined with distributors’ inclination and unwillingness to budge for a second-tier festival, made it a difficult job for the programmers at the Golden Horse.
In a recent podcast interview, Emma Chen, director of programming for the Golden Horse, mentioned the challenges she and her team experienced during the pandemic. One of the most unexpected things was when her team contacted distributors to inquire about a few film titles from the 2020 Cannes official selection. They found out that not all the films on the list were in fact ready for distribution (still in post-production); thus, the films they wanted would not be available or ready in time to make their premiere in Taiwan at the Golden Horse (Chen 2020). The other common thing was the wait or holdout for other A-list film festivals: the distributors feared that if their films did not premiere at the usual places, it would take away audiences’ interest or the film’s prestige. Refusals like this clearly reflect on top film festivals’ gatekeeping entitlement and the aura of prestige that is traditionally linked to theatrical premieres at select sites (Elsaesser 2005; de Valck 2016, 100–16). The “gatekeeping” practice from top festivals affects distributors’ hesitance and reservation for “less desirable venues,” which in return did not work favorably even for places where physical festivals are possible, as the Golden Horse. The team at the Golden Horse tried to use an in-person event as leverage to bargain for films that would carry the Cannes logo—“the hallmark of approval,” but not successfully. The reality was that, as Emma Chen (2020) disclosed, whether the festival would run onsite/in-person did not make much difference to the distributors on whether they wanted to send their films to Taiwan.
Taiwan Cinema Amid the Pandemic
Another observation of the pandemic’s impact on film festivals, award ceremonies, and the film industry in Taiwan is the absence of PRC films in 2020 (if not counting the low number of titles from Hong Kong), resulting in a favorable condition for Taiwan cinema, at film festivals as well as at the domestic box office. The 2020 TFF witnessed a 10% growth in ticket sales compared to the previous year, although their total operational funding was 20% less than what they usually received (Li 2021). The TFF also received never-before-seen extensive news coverage from international media outlets such as Variety, Screen, the New York Times, and American Press. At the 2020 Golden Horse Awards, four out of five nominees for the best picture were from Taiwan, a sharp contrast to 2018’s edition, where there was only one film of Taiwanese origin competing with four other mainland Chinese films (Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival n.d.). As for movie theaters in Taiwan, even without a lockdown, they barely survived through the pandemic due to the lack of global blockbuster releases and Western conglomerates’ direct-to-streaming deals. Interestingly, however, the situation comes at a time when Taiwanese film and TV production are enjoying a boom. Domestic movies’ box-office sales have gone up, especially in the last quarter of 2020. While not a record-breaking surge (currently no other Taiwanese production has yet broken the highest-grossing record of TWD 530 million in domestic film sales, the 2008 film Cape No. 7 has received), we are seeing significant growth and a welcoming return to domestic production from the local audience.
The pandemic may be a catalyst for putting the Taiwan film industry in the spotlight, at festivals and in movie theaters, but the reason behind China’s withdrawal from participation is, once again, political division. I am referring to the decision made by the China Film Administration, which banned mainland film production and professionals from participating in Taiwan’s 57th Golden Horse Awards and, for the second time, called to boycott the biggest event for Chinese-language cinemas. No reasons were given, signaling an attempt to block off future participation and collaboration between the two film industries. The Beijing government’s move to boycott the GHA was reactionary to the controversy just two years ago, when Taiwanese documentary filmmaker Fu Yue expressed her sentiment for Taiwan to be officially recognized as an “independent entity” during her acceptance speech on stage (Taiwan TTV News 2018). While the ceremony was broadcasting live, the Chinese government abruptly cut live coverage as a means to shut down ideological deviance. After Fu’s comments, Tu Men, a mainland Chinese actor and awards presenter, came onstage and deliberately emphasized that he felt honored to be invited back to the ceremony taking place in “Taiwan, China,” echoing Beijing’s “one China” principle. This incident sparked an intense debate between Taiwanese and mainland film professionals, as well as in the online community, about questions and stances for Taiwan’s independence. Chinese movie stars who attended the Golden Horse Awards ceremony in 2018 even censored themselves by refusing to go on stage to accept their awards or declined to attend the banquet reception following the show (Taiwan TTV News 2018).
The correlation between the absence of PRC films during Taiwan’s award season and domestic films reclaiming Taiwan’s box-office revenue remains to be made, but the number of ticket sales for the Golden Horse and box office is telling, even if it is only a part of the story. When asked to describe the impact of the Covid-19 on the Golden Horse, festival director Wen Tien-hsiang (2020) responded by saying the ticket sales for the festival already surpassed last year’s number amid the pandemic, and he anticipated the number would continue to grow. In looking at the list of 2020 highest-grossing domestic films in Taiwan, the melodrama Little Big Women (2020) takes the lead at TWD 188 million, followed by LGBTQ drama Your Name Engraved Herein (2020) at TWD 103 million (Taiwan Film and Audiovisual Institute n.d.). When placed on the yearly box office along with international releases, Little Big Women comes in 5th place (after a Japanese anime, a South Korean zombie film, Tenet, and Wonder Woman 1984). In contrast, Your Name Engraved Herein is placed in 8th place (see Table 11.1). Another local title, Do You Love Me As I Love You (2020) did as well and placed itself in 12th place on yearly box-office revenue.
The results of the strong box-office performance can be attributed to the success in distribution vision and strategy; the more than 450 post-screening Q&As sessions the producers set up across cities in Taiwan have proven successful in promoting these films, a currently unlikely strategy in many countries worldwide due to social distancing and travel restrictions. As Angelin Ong observes—speaking for mm2Asia Taiwan, the company that co-produced Your Name Engraved Herein—“without Hollywood crowding the screens, local titles are given a rare chance to have a good run to get word of mouth out and play longer in the cinemas” (Wong 2020). The success of local films is worthy of attention because, in recent years, only one or two Taiwanese productions barely made it to the top list. Not to mention Taiwan’s GDP (gross domestic product) growth last year outperformed China for the first time in three decades, thanks to the country’s success in containing Covid-19 that contributed to a substantial increase in the export-oriented economy (Cheng et al. 2021). Looking at the results of box-office sales in 2019, the top ten grossing films were dominated by Hollywood blockbusters, from Marvel Cinematic Universe films to Disney live-action remakes and animated films (Taiwan Film and Audiovisual Institute n.d.). The game-to-film adaptation Detention (2019), despite its popularity, did not make it to the top 10 on the list and earned less than one-third of the highest-grossing film of that year, compared to Avengers: Endgame (see Table 11.2).
Future Landscape of Taiwan Cinema
Films need festivals and festivals need films; this notion has never been more convincing after the pandemic hit. As this chapter demonstrates, leading film festivals in Taiwan were fortunate enough to avoid chaos in 2020, while other places had to adapt their plans to the coronavirus pandemic. And yet, moving forward, TFF and the Golden Horse may still be impacted by the collateral implications of the pandemic, as there are many uncertainties and limitations on accessing film markets in many countries. Nonetheless, two observations about changes that happened on the sideline provide a silver lining to the otherwise looming prospect. First, while major film festivals in Taiwan maintained in-person presentations, the cancelation of smaller, niche festivals early last year inspired a group of festival workers, who were temporarily out of a job, to create a podcast called “How to Read Film Festivals” that offers perspectives on the industry as well as featuring film festival professionals to discuss general themes and trends inside the industry. It is the first “festival hacks” type of podcast in Taiwan that is not affiliated with a specific festival or part of the official marketing channel. The second observation is the wave of a global resurgence in Taiwan cinema, be it the special curated selection of Taiwan New Cinema on MUBI, the first Taiwan Film Festival in Edinburgh, or the second edition of Taiwan Film Festival of Boston—all put across critical renewed interests in the cinema of Taiwan. Looking toward the future, perhaps, there is still room for the rise of second-tier film festivals in Asia, from regional impact to the global stage.
Publicization seems to be a more fitting word in the context of their writing.
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Tsai, B. (2023). Film Festivals in Taiwan: Lurking on the Periphery. In: de Valck, M., Damiens, A. (eds) Rethinking Film Festivals in the Pandemic Era and After. Framing Film Festivals. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-14171-3_11
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