Taiwanese directors put a spin on romances for young adults
Up-and-coming Taiwanese directors are putting a spin on the wildly popular young adult romances the island is famous for, writes Chris Lau
It began with the 2011 sleeper hit You Are the Apple of My Eye. The semi-autobiographical coming-of-age movie by Giddens Ko Ching-teng - the Taiwanese novelist-turned-director's debut - took the island by storm and went on to become a big box office hit on the mainland, and elsewhere in the region. The romantic comedy is now Hong Kong's highest grossing Chinese-language film. The film has since been credited with bringing the good times back to Taiwanese cinema. The island is now known for producing entertaining young adult romances, in addition to art house classics by auteurs such as Hou Hsiao-hsien and the late Edward Yang De-chang.
Although some expected that this trend would be short-lived, young adult romances have continued to flow out of Taiwan. The hits of 2012 were When a Wolf Falls in Love with a Sheep and Gf*Bf, with Lai Chun-yu's Campus Confidential the latest such offering to arrive on our shores. Campus Confidential screened at the Hong Kong International Film Festival and will open in Hong Kong cinemas on Thursday.
Lai believes the public shouldn't be too dismissive of the youthful romantic films that have followed Ko's trailblazing movie, adding that there's room for variety and innovation within the genre.
Recently in town for the festival, along with producer Su Chao-pin, the director points out that the plot in Confidential is unlike most films of its genre. "The beauty gradually changes her attitude over time, and starts to appreciate the geek."
Taking a different approach may be a good way to stand out in a Taiwanese film market that is flooded with young adult romance comedies and dramas.
Many [Taiwanese] filmmakers have jumped on the bandwagon because they lack the financial backing to make other kinds of movies, Su says.
"This is in part due to the limited resources available. It's like drawing a picture on a tiny cloth; since the cloth is so small, your design has to be simple. You can choose to sketch a person or a flower."
"If you were to shoot a scene for a martial arts movie, it might take two weeks," says the cinema veteran, whose scriptwriting credits include Double Vision (2002), a horror mystery, and who co-directed martial arts drama Reign of Assassins (2010) with John Woo. "But a drama scene would take only one day. So it makes sense for a director to go and do these teen dramas."
As Lai observes, most directors do not out by making multimillion-dollar blockbusters, and the foray into this increasingly prominent genre gives many filmmakers their first shot. "To direct a bigger production, you need to accumulate enough experience first," he says.
Emilie Yeh Yueh-yu, the associate director of Baptist University's Academy of Film, agrees. A specialist in film studies of the region, she says: "Taiwanese cinema has always been known for its depiction of innocence and romance. They are simply playing to their strengths."
Older film fans know that, in the 1970s, Taiwanese cinema was best known for churning out romantic dramas such as Love, Love, Love and Cloud of Romance. Most featured the quartet of stars collectively known as the two Lins and the two Chins: actresses Lin Feng-jiao and Brigitte Lin Ching-hsia, and actors Chin Han and Charlie Chin Hsiang-lin.
It'd be a waste, says Yeh, if Taiwanese cinema didn't build on this experience, especially when acting talent was being nurtured for the past decade in youth-centric television dramas such as Meteor Garden and It Started with a Kiss.
Lai and Su wanted to inject a fresh element to this well-trodden genre, so they cast actor Chen Bo-lin as the unkempt, dorky-looking male lead.
"In many of these movies, they tend to put a handsome guy there to play the nerd. That never comes across as a convincing premise for me, as I don't believe someone with a gorgeous face would end up being single," Su says with a chuckle.
"That's why when we first sat down with Chen Bo-lin, we told him that he's going to be super unattractive [in the film], to the point which people probably wouldn't even recognise him. Also, we told him there would be no [transformation] in the film. The frog would not become the prince this time."
Chen can hardly be considered plain-looking. "A lot of the people were puzzled by what we did, noting that Chen is a really good-looking guy, and that he's our greatest asset in the cast. They told us we were undermining our own project. But it somehow turned out fine," Su explains.
Set in a university, Confidential revolves around the most popular girl on campus, Kiki Liang (Ivy Chen Yi-han), her zhainan - the Taiwanese version of the Japanese otaku - classmate Lucky Wu (Chen Bo-lin) and a campus legend that appears to foretell that this duo will end up tying the knot.
It's a romantic comedy, so opposites attract and other cliches invariably abound. Still, Campus Confidential does manage to wrap up with an satisfying twist.
Chang Wen, a board member of Film Culture Centre (Hong Kong), reckons these youthful, energetic films have established a niche that is distinctly Taiwanese, while appealing to Hongkongers.
"It's not common for Hongkongers to be very passionate about something, or madly in love with someone, let alone publicly declare their love. If these kinds of movies were to be made in Hong Kong, it inevitably seem lame and over the top. But for Taiwan, it's somehow convincing," she says.
"With themes like high school romance, or more recently, the game of baseball in Kano, they offer a glimpse into a parallel reality. This serves as a fantasy escape for the youngsters."
So will the popularity of young adult romances hamper the hopes of Taiwanese filmmakers like Lai and Su to take up more ambitious projects? "My dream is actually to work with Tang Wei in an alien invasion movie," says Su.
"But to be honest, I don't worry about it too much."