It’s the time of year when curling up with a warm cup of tea and a good movie can be one of the nicest ways to treat yourself on a day off or rainy afternoon. Around the holidays, and in search of home and the familiar, many expats can turn to the Hallmark formulas that splash across major viewing platforms. We certainly get it and have watched our fair share, however, we also enjoy exploring the incredible shows and films that the Taiwanese film industry has to offer. Turn on your subtitles and join us in this segment as we walk through some must see films in Taiwan.
There was an article in the Economist recently that spoke about the competition and differences between the Golden Rooster and the Golden Horse awards. To break it down briefly, The Golden Horse Awards are the Taiwanese version of the Oscars that accept Chinese language films from Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, and other parts of Asia and the world. The Golden Rooster Awards are Mainland China’s version that have increasingly come to celebrate large patriotic blockbusters approved by the censors in Beijing. Although both are awards for Chinese language films, since 2016 it has been rare to see a film entered in both as laws in mainland China now require permits for all films produced in China, independent or otherwise. After a Golden Horse acceptance speech in 2018, films from mainland China have been banned (by Beijing) from entering the Golden Horse Awards, although some still manage to be entered by directors who claim nationality overseas. One result of these policies and trends is that this year’s recipient of the Golden Rooster’s Award for Best Picture award was the almost-Marvel-CGI-esque attempt entitled “Creation of The Gods I: Kingdom of Storms,” while the Golden Horse best narrative film award was “Stonewalling” which is centered around the harrowing life of a young woman struggling to make her way in Hunan Province. The contrast between these films speaks volumes to the difference in the values and forms of creative expression celebrated by the awards. It also helps explain as well why the Golden Horse awards are considered some of the prestigious in Asia and why the awards of the Rooster appear more of a jingoistic cock crow. In our view, if you are looking for a list or a place to start watching though provoking emotionally moving Chinese language films, the list of the Golden Horse Best Narrative Film Award Winners is a great place to start.
It’s almost impossible to talk about the Taiwanese film industry without mentioning Ang Lee. Born in Taiwan in the 1960’s, this legend has gone on to direct some of the most well known movies of the 21st century: “Sense and Sensibility,” “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon,” “Brokeback Mountain,” and “Life of Pi” among others. Although he is an internationally renowned director, Ang Lee retains a very close connection with Taiwan as is reflected through both his interviews and his continued involvement in the Taiwanese film industry (he was a longtime chairman of the Golden Horse Awards and more recent the president of the 2023 jury). Although his films are in English and have received critical acclaim around the globe, when seen as a lens into the world of Taiwanese film, they can be very interesting to study or rewatch.
Before we go much further, it is important to first clarify an important genre of Taiwanese film: the drama. The rise of K-Dramas has made this easier to explain to a western audience, but this motif should be kept in mind when viewing Taiwanese films as there will be elements that might play through regardless of the subject matter. Traditionally Taiwanese dramas come in the form of TV shows 10-50 episodes in length that follow an almost prescribed romantic, psychologically thrilling, or comedic pattern. Nonetheless, they are almost guaranteed to play with your emotions and result in almost binge-like viewing as the main characters go through more pain, reflection, mishaps, and longing than would be credible in a Jane Austin or Stephen King novel. To some viewers it can all feel “a little over the top,” but when seen as a style designed to clue in the audience and move them through different states of emotion it takes on a different light. Once you’ve jumped down the rabbit hole it becomes easy to get lost in this world. Although these days K-Dramas and some Mainland Chinese Dramas have overtaken Taiwanese Dramas on the world stage, drama can be a wonderful way into the world of Taiwanese film. For the romantically inclined, “Autumn’s Concerto,” “Meteor Garden” (the original), “Fated to Love You,” “See You In Time,” and “Inborn Pair” are a few of our favorites. For the more serious or suspenseful, “Nowhere Man,” “The Victims Game,” and “Copycat Killer,” are great entry points. Enjoy and we’ll meet up with you on the other side.
We’ve spoken a little about And Lee, but taking a walk down Taiwan’s illustrious directors list is another powerful way to become acquainted with the best of Taiwanese film. Hsiao-hsien Hou, Edward Yang, Tsai Ming-liang, and Wei Te-sheng are four iconic names with which to become familiar. In terms of films that might look like: “The Assassin (2015),” “Yi Yi,” “Stray Dogs,” and “Cape No. 7” but that is not even scratching the surface. Although we largely speed past him in our film recommendations, but Justin Lin is worth an honorable mention for his directing multiple Fast and Furious movies. Yee Chih-yen is famous for “Blue Gate Crossing,” and Qu Youning’s “A Boy Named Flora” has won a great deal of praise. We have recently found ourselves entranced in both Dear Tenant (2020) by Cheng Yu-chieh, and Coo Coo 043 by Ching-lin Chan. American Girl (2021) by Feng-I Fiona Roan and Monga by Doze Niu are two others that have ranked highly on our watch list as well. It’s a wide world out there and these will be some wonderful launching points.
Although underrepresented in mainstream culture, the landscape of Taiwanese Indigenous films has grown in recent years. “Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale,” is the well known Indigenous Taiwanese film that is reminiscent in ways of Braveheart, The Last of the Mohicans, or The Last Samurai, detailing indigenous resistance to Japanese rule in the 1930s. In the past couple of years the films “Gaga,” “Alifu” “Listen Before You Sing” and “Long Time No Sea, have all received a great deal of attention for their more modern portrayals of indigenous communities. Part of a wave of documentary and biopic films from the mid-1990’s through the early 2000’s such as Hu Tai-Li‘s as Returning Souls, Voices of Orchid Island, Sounds of Love and Sorrow, Songs of Pasta’ay, all offer different insights into the beliefs and practices of different indigenous groups within Taiwan. In our view, this is an exciting category to watch in the coming years and it has great potential for growth within the Taiwanese film industry.
This is the trickiest part for us as it is tough to narrow down the list of iconic Taiwanese masterpieces to simply 10, but (in no particular order) here it goes:
In a similar sense, think of these as others to watch along with all those already listed above. Bring your popcorn, tissues, humor, and sense of wonder.