Taipei holds world's first live film festival since COVID-19

Taipei Film Festival Director Li Ya-mei guides festival through uncharted territory

Taipei Film Festival banner (Taiwan News, Tim Rinaldi photo)

Taipei Film Festival banner (Taiwan News, Tim Rinaldi photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — The Taipei Film Festival, held since 1998, became the first film festival worldwide since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic to take place in a physical venue, showcasing about 200 films in the span of 17 days.

Funded by Taipei City Government and the Ministry of Culture, the festival is hosted primarily in Zhongshan Hall, an elegant brick fortress surrounded by a ring of trees.

Taipei Film Festival Director Li Ya-mei (李亞梅) has just entered her third consecutive year of running the operation. A graduate of USC Film School in Los Angeles, Li went to California because she wanted to learn "how to read cinema," returning to Taiwan to immerse herself in the local film industry.

Her background spans film marketing, film production, and a senior executive role at the Golden Horse Film Festival. At a time when Taiwan's cinema is under siege from Hollywood's superheroes, the capricious censors of China, and a local talent pool raised on Taiwan's beloved-but-unprofitable tradition of arthouse realism, Li is well-positioned to help guide filmmakers toward more lucrative terrain.

"We've broken with genre for more than 20 years," she says of the Taiwan film industry. "We want to transfer from realism to more commercial genres like comedy, romance, and suspense."

Pressures from abroad

Li admits that there has been a tendency on the part of local directors and screenwriters to misunderstand the market. Pressures from abroad, however, have also contributed to the difficulties in succeeding commercially.

At the moment, nine out of 10 Taiwanese films are losing money, even five years out, largely due to requirements imposed almost 20 years ago by Taiwan's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO). Previously it had been possible to keep Hollywood blockbusters at bay; nowadays, foreign films account for the vast majority of the box office.

"We are in the process of learning how to do genre," she says, "of learning how to attract Taiwanese audiences when they've seen films from the whole world."

Li emphasizes the industry is going through a transition period that will benefit from the relative youth of many of its members. As the world grows more concerned with the antics of China, contrasts between the artistic freedoms of the two countries may also work to the benefit of Taiwan's cinema.

"In Chinese movies you can't even show a love affair between high school students," Li explains. "They have to focus on learning"

The byzantine obstacles to storytelling enforced by China's National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA) do not end there. Any filmmaker wishing to collaborate with the cadres of the NRTA must also steer clear of depicting homosexuality, gambling, excessive drinking, prostitution, the supernatural, and much other ordinary film fare.

If Taiwan were to absorb any talent fleeing that country or even any of the international attention increasingly devoted to it, further prospects for developing audiences may arise.

Encouraging youth

In the short-term, Li has developed a clever method of restructuring the festival's awards show, the Taipei Film Awards, to increase industry revenue:

"We have more nominees and more press, and so we have more sponsorship, and because of that our box office has grown." On top of this, "Nominations have the function of encouraging young filmmakers."

The film festival has become one of the most important in Asia, managing this year to hold a world premiere for a Taiwanese film almost every night. The festival's opener, "Silent Forest," the feature debut of director Ko Chien-nien (柯貞年), is about a brutal game of bullying at a deaf school, and the film has drawn significant praise.

Closing out the event will be Tsai Ming-liang's (蔡明亮) "Days," which took home an award from Berlin.

Due to the global pandemic, this year's submissions for the festival's International New Talent Competition are down 20 percent, though entries from local filmmakers have remained constant.

"We are very lucky," Li says. "We are very blessed with this kind of opportunity, and although we can't invite foreign filmmakers, the audiences are very happy to see a film in a real theater, and this brings us great joy. Hopefully, foreign filmmakers can come next year."

Organizers have, of course, taken great care to uphold high standards of epidemic prevention, taking phone numbers of arriving attendees to enable contact tracing in the event of an outbreak.

June 25 marked the start of the festival, and it will continue through July 11. Click here for a guide to the festival and here for showtimes and ticketing.