Asia Life | Society | East Asia

‘Mulan’ Wanted Chinese Money. Taiwan’s Rising Filmmakers Don’t.

As Taiwan decouples from China, its filmmakers are starting to eschew Chinese profits in favor of political expression.

By Anthony Kao for
‘Mulan’ Wanted Chinese Money. Taiwan’s Rising Filmmakers Don’t.
Credit: Office of the President, ROC (Taiwan)

With Disney’s “Mulan,” Hollywood has landed in hot water by grubbing for Chinese profits.

For years, Taiwan’s entertainment industry has done the same. Usually, Taiwanese films and TV shows refuse to touch political themes for fear of losing Chinese market access. Simply depicting Taiwan’s flag, or implying the island has a president, is a no-go. Many of Taiwan’s top entertainers actively pander to Chinese political sentiment, making pro-unification statements and even unification-themed films to stay in Beijing’s good graces.

Now, the situation is starting to change.

Over the past two years, a new wave of political movies and series has hit Taiwan’s theaters and streaming sites, to Beijing’s chagrin.

In 2018, “Taiwan’s Stephen Colbert“ Brian Tseng launched the “Night Night Show,” a late night satirical talk show that has featured virtually every Taiwanese political heavyweight as a guest, and directly assailed Chinese leader Xi Jinping. September 2019 saw horror flick “Detention,” which depicted torture scenes from Taiwan’s White Terror. “Island Nation,” a show that dramatizes Lee Teng-hui‘s presidency during the 1990s, premiered in January 2020 after earning an attack from China’s state-owned media outlet The Global Times.

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With a premise related to Taiwan’s often-raucous legislature, zombie political satire “Get the Hell Out is the latest example; it not only screened in Taiwan but also earned a slot at the Toronto International Film Festival last week.

What explains this shift?

There are at least four factors: a youth-driven surge in local Taiwanese identity, overall economic decoupling from China, the growth of digital distribution channels, and incremental progress in transitional justice from Taiwan’s authoritarian period.

According to a Pew Research poll published in May 2020, 66 percent of people in Taiwan identify as “only Taiwanese,” as opposed to “both Taiwanese and Chinese” or “only Chinese.” While this figure is at an all-time high, it reflects a shift that’s been happening for years — which seems to have reached a tipping point amidst Beijing’s growing assertiveness and protests in Hong Kong.

Younger Taiwanese are at the vanguard of this trend. Especially after 2014’s student-led Sunflower Movement against a trade pact with China, Taiwanese in their 20s and 30s have been the most vocal advocates for Taiwan’s democracy. This desire to defend Taiwan’s political system has not only created more demand for politically-themed entertainment, but also inspired young Taiwanese to make such productions themselves. According to Sylvia Feng, the executive producer of “Island Nation,” 80 percent of the show’s viewers are between ages 20-40. The directors of both “Detention” and “Get the Hell Out,” as well as Brian Tseng of the “Night Night Show,” all fall into the same age range.

These young Taiwanese creatives have also made the influence of Chinese capital less relevant by deprioritizing Chinese audiences. To them, the creative costs of doing business with China are too high — especially given the obsequious lengths that many Taiwanese celebrities still go through to stay in Beijing’s good graces.

This fits within a broader current of economic decoupling between Taiwan and China. Beyond strategic initiatives like the New Southbound Policy, Taiwan’s government has also focused on reducing Chinese influence in the media sector. Taiwan’s Economic Ministry recently banned Chinese streaming services iQiyi and WeTV from operating on the island, and the government-funded Public Television Service has cooperated with HBO and Netflix to distribute Taiwanese shows internationally.

On this note, the growth of internet streaming has been a boon for locally-focused, politically-themed Taiwanese entertainment. Since the 1990s, traditional distribution channels like cable television networks have become prime vectors for Chinese economic and political meddling; shows like “Island Nation” have found it difficult to air through such mediums. Streaming services allow Taiwanese creatives to take a detour around Beijing’s political obstacles, especially since many international platforms like Netflix and YouTube do not operate in mainland China, and are therefore less subject to Chinese financial pressures. Taiwan itself is also home to multiple streaming services that feature Beijing-unfriendly content. Local e-commerce firm friDay started a video portal that hosts “Island Nation” and “Detention,” while Taipei-based GagaOOLala bills itself as Asia’s first LGBT-focused streaming platform.

However, it’s important to note that while some of these political productions make direct jabs at China, they’re usually more centered on domestic Taiwanese politics. Historically, depicting Taiwan’s internal politics risked not only angering Beijing, but also upsetting conservative supporters of the China-leaning Kuomintang (KMT), which presided over a brutal period of martial law between 1947 and 1987 known as the White Terror. Since the KMT remains one of the island’s two main political parties, Taiwan has been slow in coming to terms with its authoritarian past. This meant that movies and TV shows had a difficult time designating political villains that wouldn’t feel excessively polarizing to a significant portion of Taiwan’s population.

After taking power in 2016, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen (from the DPP, main rival to the KMT) prioritized achieving transitional justice for the White Terror. During her first term, Tsai created a committee to investigate KMT party assets gained as a result of authoritarian rule, established a Transitional Justice Commission (TJC), and ordered the opening of martial law-era archives. Progress has been slow though: it’s taken until after Tsai’s landslide re-election this year for the TJC to actually release a database of archival materials, and begin publishing reports about White Terror atrocities.

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While concrete measures have come at a glacial pace, discourse around transitional justice has become more normalized — simply because Taiwan’s top officials have devoted so much attention to the issue. This has created air cover for those in the media sector who want to depict politics. In fact, many figures behind Taiwan’s new wave of political productions have connections with transitional justice advocacy organizations.

For example, Brian Tseng of the “Night Night Show” makes regular appearances on Taiwan Bar, a YouTube channel that creates videos about Taiwan history and politics, including ones directly addressing transitional justice. The production company behind “Island Nation” has also been an active participant in Taiwan’s transitional justice discourse; in one instance, it re-enacted a White Terror execution live on the streets of Tainan.

As Taiwan further distances itself from China and transitional justice measures advance in Tsai’s second term, more politically-themed movies and shows will probably come to fruition. However, it’s unlikely that Taiwan will be as prolific as other democracies like South Korea in this regard.

Even with economic decoupling, China is still Taiwan’s largest trading partner by far. Mainland China and Hong Kong combined account for 41 percent of Taiwan’s exports, with the United States following at a distant 11.6 percent. Especially when it comes to financing new titles, the influence of Chinese capital will persist, even if indirectly. With a population of only 23.8 million, Taiwan’s domestic market is also too small to support significant production volumes and budgets on its own.

Nevertheless, the fact that Taiwanese are ramping up Beijing-bucking content in spite of these challenges may be a sign of things to come. Taiwan’s entertainment industry has self-censored for the sake of Chinese profits for far longer than Hollywood — and Taiwanese are tired of it. As Disney is discovering through “Mulan,” the rest of the world might be starting to feel the same.

Anthony Kao is an independent writer and the founder of Cinema Escapist, a publication focused on the sociopolitical context behind international films and television.