Postcard: Taipei

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 June, 2013, 4:17pm

Chalk it down to a previous life spent studying business management, but Hsieh Chun-yi was under no illusions about the modern marketplace when he started planning his first feature film.

The 35-year-old Taiwanese director says he turned to cinema in order to satisfy a desire to have his views on the world around him heard - but realised that there was no point airing those views if no one came to see his film.

"I wanted first to make cinema so people could hear my voice and could see things that I see in the world, but now I realise there is more to cinema that that," says Hsieh, who turned away from studying business to make short films and study filmmaking at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts programme in Singapore.

"People want a good story, they want to feel the story and to connect to it. I can put my voice in there somewhere but I know I have to connect with the audience and show things that they can respond to. That's what I hope I have done with my first film and that's why I made this type of comedy," he says.

The compromise, if it can even be called that, is Hsieh's feature debut, Apolitical Romance (formerly known as Unpolitical Romance). This engaging look at cross-straits relationships shows Hsieh's commercial smarts by turning to the genre that Taiwan's film industry has made its own: the romantic comedy.

The past two years have seen a stream of romantic comedies emerging from Taiwan, inspired by the exploits of Giddens Ko Ching-teng's wistful You Are the Apple of My Eye, which took US$25 million across Asia after costing US$1.7 million to make.

Hsieh thinks some of the success of Taiwanese rom-coms stems from the fact that the island's new generation of filmmakers have been inspired by the films of such acclaimed auteurs as Edward Yang De-chang and Hou Hsiao-hsien, directors with reputations for their down-to-earth attitudes and subject matter.

"Their films are about real people and their films are realistic," says Hsieh. "Even with my film I tried to make the characters as real as possible. I think that in comedies people will laugh more if they can recognise bits of themselves or people they know."

People like the comedy and they like to see characters they can recognise. We wanted to have fun with the way that people look at each other
Hsieh Chun-yi

The director also believes that the success of the genre across the Greater China market stems from the fact the audience can recognise shared experiences in these films.

"This kind of movie seems to have always been popular in Chinese societies," he says. "People like the comedy and they like to see characters they can recognise. We wanted to have fun with the way that people look at each other."

Apolitical Romance follows a slow-burn relationship that builds between a mainland woman (Huang Lu) visiting Taiwan and the young Taiwanese guy (Bryan Chang Shu-hao) who decides to help her search for her ailing grandmother's long lost love.

The laughs come first from Hsieh's gentle mocking of how each side perceives the other - Huang seems to delight in vamping up the cliché of the pushy mainland go-getter, while Chang oozes quiet charm as the smooth Taiwanese man-child. But what also helps lift the film well above the ordinary is the script's ability to gently give its audience pause to reflect on the larger political picture.

"There are so many interesting things you can talk about with this kind of film," says Hsieh. "You have the issues of men and women, and of mainland China and Taiwan and how people from each place see each other."

Apolitical Romance was a hit with audiences and critics when it had its world premiere at the Golden Horse Film Festival in Taipei last November, and it met with the same reaction at its international premiere at the Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy, in April. It is now set for release across Taiwan in September and Hsieh hopes other Chinese markets will follow.

Hsieh says he was surprised at how easily an international audience warmed to both the romance and the comedy in his film.

"In my heart I am making a movie for Taiwan - the point of view is from a Taiwanese person," he says. "But at the same time I was hoping all Chinese people can enjoy it. Seeing an international audience enjoy the film so much has shown me that people might be the same all over the world."