Taiwan's film makers find it hard to survive

( dpa )- Taiwanese film makers Tsai Ming- liang and Lee Kang- sheng are getting lots of exposure these days because of their visits to markets and schools to peddle tickets for their new films.

Many Taiwanese find Tsai and Lee's promotional effort strange, because they think when directors have to sell tickets to their films, it says a lot about a country's film industry.

" Taiwan's film industry is hopeless," said Peng Huai-chen , an associate professor at the Tunghai University.

"On the one hand, we cannot emulate Hollywood because we lack funds to make big-budget films. On the other hand, we cannot compete with Chinese films because Taiwan films have no cultural roots," Peng said.

But Peng is comforted by the fact that some independent Taiwan film makers have produced extraordinary documentaries, which have helped forged a new direction for Taiwanese filmmakers.

"I hope this will lead them to produce films with rich culture characteristics like some European films," he said, pointing 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days - about a student arranging an abortion in communist Romania when abortion was a crime.

Launched in 1949 when the Chinese Nationalists lost the Chinese Civil War and fled to Taiwan to set up their government-in-exile, Taiwan's film industry has been closely linked with its political turmoil.

In the following three decades, Taiwan, calling itself the beacon of freedom, became an important base for making anti-Communist propaganda and kungfu films, though the best kungfu films were made in Hong Kong, home of Bruce Lee.

The 1980s and 1990s saw a renaissance of Taiwan's film industry with the emergence of dozens of films exploring local themes, led by Hou Hsiao- hsien's City of Sadness and the Sandwich Man along with Edward Yang's A Brighter Summer Day.

City of Sadness, a Taiwan family's sufferings during the White Terror days after Taiwan had returned to China following the 1895-1945 Japanese colonization, won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival.

However, Taiwan's economic downturn and its international isolation has hurt the island's film industry, making it impossible for Taiwan directors to make big-budget films or join foreign countries in making co-productions.

The situation for Taiwan film makers became even worse in the 1990s when China opened its door to the west and South Korean films and TV dramas swept across Asia.

As China's fifth-and sixth-generation directors began to shine on the world stage, world attention shifted to China, dealing another blow to Taiwan films.

Taiwan films continued to win prizes at leading international film festivals, such as Tsai Ming- liang's Vive l"Amour which won the prestigious Golden Lion the Venice Film Festival.

However, often enough they have not been so successful at the box office.

Compared with heart-touching small-budget films like Not One Less (by Chinese director Zhang Yimou ) or A Taste of Cherry (by Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami ), Taiwan's feature films sometimes seem amateur in technique and narrow in content.

An exception to that is Taiwan-born director Ang Lee who went to the United States in 1979 and now ranks among the world's top directors.

Lee is a US citizen but Taiwan still hails him as a native son as he identifies with and speaks up for the diplomatically-isolated Taiwan at international occasions.

To nurture Taiwan's film industry, the Government Information Office (GIO) provides subsidies to budding film makers and issues award to films that have been awarded prizes at the world's major film festivals - Cannes, Venice and Berlin - or recognition at the Academy Awards.

"We also subsidize cinemas that show Taiwan films," Tian You-an, executive officer at GIO's Department of Motion Picture, said. "Last year, we launched a subsidy for international co-production of large films."

But for most Taiwan directors, the road to film making in Taiwan is becoming narrower with each passing day due to the island's political and economic marginalization. To survive, they must walk out of Taiwan, literally or figuratively.

Zero Chou, 38, an independent film producer, won the Teddy award at the 2007 Berlin Film Festival for her Spider Lillies , a film about lesbian love, and is eyeing another award at this year's Berlin Film Festival with Drifting Flowers, also a lesbian film.

"I am lucky that I have a patron who finances my film making, covering 30 per cent of my budget, but I pay him back with the money I make from shooting educational TV programmes and documentaries," she said.

"To survive, I must look into cross-country cooperation, like using famous mainland Chinese actors and actresses in my films, in order to make my films sell," she added.

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