Life & Art
Golden Bell nod to #Metoo
Despite touching on universal and contemporary themes and achieving popularity at home, Taiwan’s recent televisions shows and films have struggled to gain much traction with international audiences
By Brian Hioe
Lin Chun-yang (林君陽), accepting the Golden Bell award for best director in a mini-series for Wave Makers
Source: Golden Bell Youtube Channel
The winners for the 58th Golden Bell Awards–Taiwan’s major television awards–were announced in late October.
As was expected, Wave Makers–the hit Netflix show–took home a number of awards, including Best Mini-Series, Best Directing in a Mini-Series and Best Visual Effects for a Drama Series. Otherwise, Wave Makers racked up a number of nominations, with Chien Li-ying and Yan Shi-ji nominated for Best Writing for a Miniseries or Television Film and Gingle Wang nominated for Best Leading Actress in a Miniseries or Television Film.
Either way, Wave Makers will likely go down in Taiwanese history because of its impact on society. It was, after all, Wave Makers that led to the explosion of #MeToo cases in the past few years. Wave Makers itself fronted the issue of sexual harassment and assault in Taiwanese politics. Subsequently, there was an outbreak of #MeToo allegations in intellectual, cultural, and social circles, after a viral post that cited Wave Makers.
Other nominees–including Mad Doctor, which took home Best Television Series, and The Mimicry, which won Best Television Film–have not been as culturally or socially influential.
In the meantime, the nominees for the Golden Horse Awards, Taiwan’s major film awards, have been announced. The award ceremony will take place on 25 November. Favorites to win are LGBTQ buddy cop comedy Marry My Dead Body and Eye of the Storm, which depicts the 2003 lockdown of the Heping Hospital during SARS.
In this vein, there has been a long history of award-winning television shows or movies in Taiwan directly engaging with social issues. This includes, for example, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s iconic City of Sadness. The classic of the Taiwanese New Wave, which won Best Director and Best Film at the 1989 Golden Horse Awards for Hou and Golden Lion at the 46th Venice Film Festival, was the first Taiwanese film to depict the 228 Massacre. Likewise, Days We Stared at the Sun I and Days We Stared at the Sun II, which won Best Television or Mini-Series at the 2011 and 2018 Golden Bell Awards respectively, engaged with the social issue of high schoolers from underprivileged economic backgrounds in the first season and depicted the 2014 Sunflower Movement in its second season.
More generally, however, many Taiwanese film and television shows have drawn source material from social issues in past years. For example, the number of Taiwanese television and film works that have sought to engage with violent crimes committed by troubled young people and the issue of capital punishment are too many to count.
This includes a number of award-winners, such as the 2019 winner for Best Television Series, The World Between Us, and 2021’s Goddamned Asura, Taiwan’s submission to Best International Feature Film at the 95th Academy Awards. Other examples include 2021’s Terrorizers, which was nominated for Best Director at the Golden Horse Awards, and 2022’s Bad Education, which was nominated for but did not win Best New Director for actor Kai Ko in his directorial debut. One expects the television series Port of Lies, which depicts an Indigenous public defender who becomes involved in a murder case involving a young Indonesian migrant fisherman, to be a favorite for next year’s Golden Bell Awards.
It remains to be seen how Taiwanese television and films can connect with international audiences, however. The successes of the Taiwanese New Wave abroad in the 1980s and 1990s arguably took place because it resonated with the taste of global cinema-watching audiences, given its strong influence from Italian neorealism and its universal themes, while also depicting social concerns that were uniquely Taiwanese. Since then, however, there has been an inability to replicate the success of the Taiwanese New Wave.
The Taiwanese domestic film industry collapsed with the influx of Hollywood films after import quotas were lifted following Taiwan’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2002. But film scholars largely agree that the Taiwanese domestic film industry began to revitalize after 2008’s hit, Cape No. 7.
By contrast, historically, Taiwanese television shows that were hits abroad were successful in the Southeast Asian market or in other Sinophone markets such as Hong Kong. One thinks of 2001’s iconic Meteor Garden–though one notes that Meteor Garden was, in fact, adapted from Japanese manga Boys Over Flowers. It is possible that domestic hits do not resonate internationally because they are too deeply rooted in Taiwanese social issues to appeal to audiences outside of Taiwan.
Indeed, there were high hopes for 2020’s Island Nation to become such a hit, as Taiwan’s first political drama, but this did not occur–Island Nation was too hampered down with the usual tropes of Taiwanese television productions. In particular, as with Wave Makers, television shows in recent years have placed high hopes on Netflix distribution. Likewise, as Netflix and other major international distribution platforms become increasingly involved in Taiwanese productions, the involvement of Hollywood consultants could make it more likely for Taiwanese productions to appeal to international audiences. Southeast Asia continues to be a strong market, in particular for Taiwanese horror, as in the successes of 2022’s Incantation, 2019’s Detention, with its White Terror setting, illustrates how a strong focus on Taiwanese history does not foreclose success in markets outside of Taiwan.
South Korea has been looked at with much envy by Taiwan’s television and film industry, given the successes of South Korean television and film abroad. Yet while a key factor in the success of South Korean television and film internationally was smart marketing by the South Korean government, the Taiwanese government has not proven as adept in international promotion. This may be another contributing factor to the challenges faced by Taiwanese film and television production abroad.
Still, it is also possible that award-winners in Taiwan may not correspond with the tastes of the public at large–or what proves commercially successful. After all, the winners of the Golden Horse Awards and Golden Bell Awards are decided by a select jury of high-profile film and television industry figures. This is the case with other international awards, such as the European Golden Lion and the Cannes Film Festival, but different from the American Academy Awards and Emmys, which are chosen by larger industry bodies composed of professionals in the film and television industries.
Indeed, this has been a criticism of both awards in the past. There have also been cases in which jury members were accused of, in fact, lacking the qualifications to judge films. The director of the 2017 movie Story in Taipei–a comically incompetent production described as Taiwan’s first cult film in the “so bad, it’s good” genre–Huang Ying-hsiung, in fact, served as a jury member of Golden Horse Awards in the past.
Certainly, the Taiwanese New Wave has not been replicated in past decades. But apart from that, the Taiwanese New Wave was able to speak the language of global cinematic tastes and was read as speaking to universal themes, it also stood out for its distinctively Taiwanese quality. How to market what is quintessentially Taiwanese in a way that appeals to international audiences may be something that the local film and television industry needs to improve on. There may be a need to consider this issue further at a time in which globalization has made it increasingly easy for the cultural productions of a specific country to catch on internationally.
Brian Hioe is a Taiwanese American writer, translator, and the founding editor of New Bloom