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Ignored by China, Taiwan cinema walks its own road

Taipei film awards honor homegrown hit 'Detention'

A still from the hit film "Detention," which explores the "White Terror," a 38-year period of martial law in Taiwan during which vigilance against communist infiltration dominated daily life. (Courtesy of 1 Production)

TAIPEI -- Stymied by censorship and political repression during decades of one-party rule, Taiwan's film industry blossomed during the island's liberalization in the 1980s and 1990s. But in recent years, it has felt cross pressure from the censorship regime of the neighboring Chinese Communist Party in Beijing.

With a heavily Mandarin-speaking population of 23 million, compared with 1.4 billion in China, many of the democratic island's filmmakers are attracted to the larger market across the Taiwan strait. But bigger-budget films like "The Assassin," a 2015 release by director Hou Hsiao-hsien, have had to comply with increasingly restrictive Chinese censors, whose demands include downplaying or erasing Taiwanese identity.

Some filmmakers, though, are succeeding with low-budget Taiwan-centered stories told by young directors and aimed at the local market. John Hsu's hit film "Detention" offers a prime example of how Taiwanese films can find success. Not only is the film Taiwan's highest-grossing release this year, it landed a slew of awards at the annual Golden Horse Awards held in Taipei on Saturday.

Hsu, who has directed a number of successful short films, starting with "Intoxicant" (2008), had been deeply moved by the video game "Detention" (2017), he told the Nikkei Asian Review. The survival horror adventure was created by Taiwan's Red Candle Games for Steam, a distribution platform owned by Valve Corp. of the U.S.

The game, a two-dimensional, atmospheric horror tale set in a 1960s high school, explores the "White Terror," a 38-year period of martial law initiated by Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang nationalist party after it fled China's communist revolution in 1949. Vigilance against communist infiltration dominated daily life, even in high schools.

Stills from "Detention," which tied for the most honors at this year's Golden Horse Awards in Taipei. (Courtesy of 1 Production)

Hsu's cinematic adaptation centers around an underground book club at a high school in the early 1960s, in which teachers and students share forbidden literature. The accidental discovery of the club by a student, Fang Ray Shin, played by actress Gingle Wang, gives her leverage over a romantic rival -- one of two teachers providing books.

As the film flits between reality and fantasy, a mirror-faced monster haunts the school, killing indiscriminately while reciting propaganda of the Kuomintang, the Chinese Nationalist political party. The mirrored face reflects its victims, suggesting that the real monster of the White Terror years was Taiwanese society, permeated by a culture of distrust and paranoia that some used for personal gain or settling scores.

One of "Detention's" main goals was to educate young people who know little of this dark chapter in Taiwan's history, said Lieh Lee, the film's co-producer. Lee, a well-known singer and actress during the martial law period, said it was vital that the White Terror should not be forgotten, along with its victims -- more than 140,000 people were arrested on suspicion of political crimes, and thousands were executed.

Lieh Lee, second from right, John Hsu, center, and Gingle Wang, second from left, at the Busan International Film Festival. (Courtesy of 1 Production)

"Today, young people aren't very clear about that time," she said at a cafe in Taipei's fashionable Yongkang Street district. "Teachers don't teach enough about it; the media doesn't discuss it enough."

Taiwanese cinema has also been avoiding the topic, not least because films about the ethnic Chinese Kuomintang's oppression of Taiwan cannot be shown or streamed in China, as the Communist Party dislikes depictions of the period. The era has been portrayed in critically acclaimed art house films, such as Hou's 1989 classic "City of Sadness," but few films have broached the era since then, Lee said.

"Detention" is an unabashedly commercial take on the period, aimed squarely at young people. The film's roots in the video game of the same name -- Taiwan's first homegrown hit -- also help. Recruiting 38-year-old Hsu, steeped in both video games and film, was another move aimed at making sure the final product spoke to its target audience, Lee said.

Lee and Hsu appear to have succeeded. With production and marketing costs of $3.3 million, "Detention" took more than $8.5 million at the box office in its first five weeks, making it the Taiwan market's 10th-biggest-grossing film this year. Its status was further cemented by nominations in 12 categories for the annual Golden Horse Awards for Chinese-language films made in Taiwan, Hong Kong and China. On Saturday, it won five, including best new director for Hsu.

"Detention" was among an unusually large Taiwanese cohort at this year's awards ceremony. That is because Beijing effectively blocked Chinese and Hong Kong films from participating this year after taking issue with a speech by Taiwanese director Fu Yue in 2018. "I really hope that one day, our country can be treated as a truly independent entity," Fu said in tears after accepting the Best Documentary prize. "This is my greatest wish as a Taiwanese."

While many present applauded Fu's speech, others appeared concerned about Beijing's response. TV coverage of the awards ceremony showed Ang Lee, the Oscar-winning Taiwanese director, wearing a pained smile. China-born actress Gong Li, a Singaporean citizen, refused to take the stage afterward, in protest at Fu's speech. Many Chinese celebrities skipped the ceremony's after-party, heading straight home to avoid the wrath of Beijing and of Chinese social media.

In a move to counter the attention generated by Taiwan's annual film awards, Beijing staged its own Golden Rooster Awards on the same night, announcing they would be held annually in future. Film critics, however, warn the ceremony's ability to supplant its Taiwanese rival is far from guaranteed.

Ming-yeh Rawnsley, a research associate at the Center of Taiwan Studies at London University's School of Oriental and African Studies, said the absence of independent Chinese films at the Taiwanese ceremony will hurt filmmakers in China, depriving them of an influential platform. Lee concurred, noting that several Chinese films that initially fared poorly in China found success after winning awards in Taipei. "It's their loss," she said, adding that Beijing's ban would not have a negative effect on Taiwan's film market.

The vacuum left by Chinese films at the Golden Horse Awards has been filled not only by Taiwanese films such as the Mong-Hong Chung crime drama "A Sun," which took home the Audience Choice award and tied with "Detention" for the most honors, but also by films from other markets, including the Malaysian-British co-production "The Garden of Evening Mists" (nine nominations, one award). Some independent Hong Kong productions, including Wong Yee-lam's "My Prince Edward," were also nominated, despite Beijing's desire to isolate the Taiwanese award ceremony.

"Detention" is slated to hit screens in Hong Kong in December, and Lee's company, 1 Production, has sold rights for Japan and Southeast Asia. Given the Hong Kong government's growing crackdown on expression, its Dec. 5 premiere is uncertain. "We're pretty sure they won't show it in Hong Kong," Lee said, "It's a big question mark at this point."

"Detention" is a reminder that Taiwan's democratic freedoms are relatively new -- and fragile. Films that explore the martial law era offer a way of "rebuilding history" for Taiwan's young people, who have only known a liberal and open society, and whose families may be reticent to discuss old tragedies.

Lee said she has been heartened by the large audience of young people for "Detention." "What's your political stance? What party do you support? I don't care," she said. "But we must not forget our past."

Meanwhile, Beijing's ban on the Golden Horse Awards is likely to persist, while attendees continue to enjoy free speech. After winning the award for Best Original Film song for "After the Rain", a song featured in "Detention," musician Lu Lu-ming dedicated his award to Hong Kong, to which the audience roared with approval.

As the cheers died down, Lu addressed Hong Kongers directly, saying, "I hope you can live in peace and freedom."

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