Why Taipei is suddenly in movies like Lucy: novelty and subsidy

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 December, 2014, 10:37pm
UPDATED : Monday, 22 December, 2014, 2:39pm

For years, Taiwan was barely on Hollywood's radar for filming global blockbusters - but director Ang Lee's decision to shoot his Oscar-winning 3-D adventure Life of Pi on the island transformed its fortunes.

Long overshadowed by Japan and Hong Kong, Taiwan with its dramatic scenery and skyscrapers is fast becoming the Asian hub for some of cinema's biggest hitters.

Its rise is thanks to a combination of glowing praise from industry heavyweights, film subsidies and a concerted effort by local authorities to court international filmmakers.

Local boy Lee further raised the island's profile as a potential movie-making hot spot when he said he could not have made his hit film "without the help of Taiwan" in his acceptance speech after winning the Oscar for best director in 2013.

French filmmaker Luc Besson chose Taipei over seven other Asian cities when selecting the setting for part of his sci-fi thriller Lucy, which starred Scarlett Johansson. Martin Scorsese is scheduled to shoot his new production Silence on the island in 2015.

"Some cities are very photogenic, some others are not at all. Paris is very photogenic and Taipei is very photogenic too," says Besson, whose Lucy featured nearly an hour of scenes from the capital, from the landmark Taipei 101 skyscraper to popular steamed dumplings.

Even though Taiwan is home to 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 insiders say.

"For an international collaboration, whether the local partner is reliable is crucial," says producer Aileen Li, who coordinated the shooting in Taipei of Lucy and Hong Kong director John Woo Yu-sum's The Crossing.

"After Life of Pi and Lucy were shot in Taiwan, 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," Li says.

Taipei offers a maximum subsidy of US$1 million for a co-production meeting its requirements, such as hiring local crew, and assists in local marketing and advertising, authorities say.

As of the end of October, 408 foreign productions, including movies, television series and variety shows, had been shot in the city, compared with a total of 477 in 2013, according to the Taipei Film Commission.

Taipei has attracted productions from Italy, Britain - with the BBC shooting some of the forthcoming film X+Y there - and even the Baltic state of Latvia, due to lower costs and a willingness to accommodate, industry watchers say.

Japanese director Takashi Miike filmed some scenes for his crime drama Shield of Straw in Taiwan, shooting the high-speed train system after Japanese rail authorities turned him away.

Taiwan's openness is also a big plus for international filmmakers, compared with the mainland where the authorities censor scripts with subjects deemed politically sensitive or obscene, observers say.

"To film some scenes [on the mainland] the local authorities will review the script and that can put some pressure on filmmakers. So in such situations Taiwan will be an option as it is also a Chinese-speaking society," says Li.

Taiwan being a lesser-known film location could also be an advantage for movie-makers. "Many foreigners are not familiar with Taiwan. They may see Taipei in 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", she suggests.

For Taiwan, bringing in foreign productions means "more income, more experience and more friendship" for the film and tourism industries, says 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. This is win-win for both sides," she says.

Jao is optimistic Taiwan can attract more foreign productions, 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 filmmaking in the next three to five years."

Agence France-Presse