December 3, 2014 – For years, Taiwan was barely on Hollywood’s radar for filming global blockbusters – but acclaimed director Ang Lee’s decision to shoot his Oscar-winning 3D adventure “Life of Pi” on the island has transformed its fortunes.
Long overshadowed by Japan and Hong Kong, Taiwan with its dramatic scenery and skyscrapers is fast becoming the go-to Asian hub for some of cinema’s biggest hitters. Its rise is thanks to a combination of high praise from industry heavyweights, film subsidies and a concerted effort by local authorities to court international filmmakers.
Lee further raised Taiwan’s profile as a potential movie-making hotspot when he acknowledged he could not have made the hit film “without the help of Taiwan” in his acceptance speech after winning the Oscar for best director in 2013. French director Luc Besson chose capital Taipei over seven other Asian cities when selecting the setting for part of his sci-fi thriller “Lucy”, which starred Scarlett Johansson, while Hollywood grand master Martin Scorcese is scheduled to shoot his eagerly-awaited new production “Silence” on the island in 2015.
“Some cities are very photogenic, some other are not at all. Paris is very photogenic and Taipei is very photogenic too,” Besson said in a promotional tour in Taiwan in August. “Working in Taipei was quite easy … The city was very welcoming. Luc was happy with (what) we found here. It’s nice and easy – as if we were at home,” noted Besson’s wife, producer Virginie Silla.”
Even though Taiwan is home to a number of internationally-acclaimed filmmakers such as Lee, Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Tsai Ming-liang, foreign companies had passed over the island as a co-production partner or a shooting location due to the lack of precedent, local industry insiders say.
“For an international collaboration, whether the local partner is reliable is crucial,” said producer Aileen Li, who coordinated the shooting in Taipei of “Lucy” and Hong Kong director John Woo’s upcoming epic “The Crossing”.
She added: “After ‘Life of Pi’ and ‘Lucy’ were shot in Taiwan, I think international teams were assured and started to see Taiwan as an option alongside Tokyo, Bangkok, Hong Kong and Seoul when choosing a location in Asia.”
The capital Taipei has seen a steady increase in international crews. The city offers a maximum subsidy of US$1 million for a co-production meeting its requirements, such as hiring local crew, which in part can be received during filming, and assists in local marketing and advertisement, authorities said.
As of the end of October, 408 foreign productions, including movies, television series and variety shows, were shot in the city, compared with a total of 477 in 2013, according to the semi-official Taipei Film Commission.
Taipei has attracted productions not only from its Asian neighbours but also from Italy, Britain – with the BBC shooting some of forthcoming film “X+Y” there – and even the Baltic state of Latvia, due to lower costs and a willingness to accommodate, industry watchers say.
“Taipei’s consumer prices and personnel costs are cheaper compared with cities like Tokyo or Hong Kong… and Taiwanese people are very warm and friendly. I think these are the advantages and winning factors for Taipei,” said producer Li.
When Besson’s crew was harassed by paparazzi while filming “Lucy” in Taipei, the city’s mayor Hau Lung-bin swiftly conducted a press conference to call for restraint. Japanese director Takashi Miike also came to Taipei to film some scenes in his crime drama “Shield of Straw,” which competed in last year’s Cannes festival, shooting Taiwan’s high-speed train system after Japanese rail authorities turned him away.
Taiwan’s openness is also a big plus to attract international filmmakers, compared with China where the authorities can censor scripts with subjects deemed politically sensitive or obscene, observers say.
“To film some scenes in China the local authorities will review the script and that could have some pressure on filmmakers so in such situation Taiwan will be an option as it is also a Chinese-speaking society,” said producer Li.
For Taiwan, bringing in the international productions means “more income, more experience and more friendship” for the film and tourism industries, said Jennifer Jao, director of the Taipei Film Commission. “There will be hiring of Taiwanese film crews while foreign stars and crews will live in local hotels, dine in the restaurants and sightsee on their time off, ” she said. “This is win-win for both sides.”
Besson was presented a “key of the city” by mayor Hau to thank him for helping promote Taipei with “Lucy,” which featured nearly an hour of scenes from the capital, from the landmark Taipei 101 skyscraper to popular steamed dumplings.
And Taiwan being a previously lesser known film location could also be an advantage for movie-makers. “Many foreigners are not familiar with Taiwan, they may see Taipei from ‘Lucy’ but they still don’t know what other cities look like, so many Taiwanese cities can fit into a script that requires a generic Asian backdrop,” Li said.
Jao is optimistic that Taiwan can attract more foreign productions also thanks to the rising clout of Asian and Chinese-language cinema.
“I think Asia’s film market is very promising and Asia will be an important base for film-making in the next three to five years,” she said. “Co-productions will be the trend as everybody wants to consolidate funds and spread risks during financial downturns.”