For several decades now, prime-time drama serials aired during the evening eight o'clock time slot have been a staple for viewers who both love and hate them, and they occupy a crucial position in the history of TV in Taiwan. Now with the support of the huge mainland China market, a large influx of capital, and complemented by China's majestic mountains and rivers, over the last few years TV series shot by Taiwanese directors at mainland locations have become more and more refined, to the point where they have begun to win international box office appeal.
Producers of Taiwan TV series are "culture workers" as well as the most flexible of businesspeople. Although the mainland authorities have laid down all sorts of limitations in order to foster the local entertainment industry, Taiwanese producers, employing their most sensitive nose for business, and working together with top global talent from Chinese drama circles, continue to establish their own brand names and market themselves globally.
Having set out to shoot prime-time TV series in mainland China, just how do you operate? And how do you get a foot in the international market?
An October weekend in Suzhou's Mudu Town, there's not a cloud in the sky but the cold wind chills to the bone. In order to control costs, the film crew for producer Young Pei-pei's adapted script based on Gu Long's famous martial arts novel Flying Sword Meets Flying Sword has divided into two groups who work in shifts from early morning to late at night.
In the pale early morning light, several vans transport 20 or so staff and their film equipment toward the temporary outdoor set on the outskirts of the city. Only just arrived at the site, the film crew are already busy deploying a red crowd-control cordon to keep the public at a distance, assembling the jacklift for the camera, and fixing the small screen in place.
Assistant director Lin Hui-mei from Taiwan gives acting directions in Mandarin to Zhang Xi, a mainland Chinese actor, but speaks Taiwanese to the field producer Hung Jen-tsuo as she complains that the cordon surrounding the backdrop leaves too little space. But when Hong Kong director Ye Zhao-yi communicates with the cameraman, it's in Cantonese. Meanwhile, a few extras chew the fat in the soft dialect of Suzhou.
In no time flat, the site is in order. From their arrival to the start of filming, the staff have spent just ten minutes. This is a "United Nations" international team with spectacularly good efficiency. According to field producer Hung Jen-tsuo, it takes only an hour and a half to shoot a four-minute scene.
"There were many dialogue-intensive shots in Newcomer to Officialdom done early in the year, yet 49 episodes took only 50 work-days. Done in the summer, Tathagata Buddha's Divine Hand was big on martial arts and special effects, but 40 episodes were completed in just two-and-a-half months," said Hung Jen-tsuo, illustrating the speed of the film crew.
Shooting is done at the speed of flight, but there is also a detailed craftsmanship to it.
A 15-minute ride to the banks of Lake Tai, and there is famous martial arts director Cheng Hsiao-tung in a thick winter coat and large, dark sunglasses beneath his fisherman's cap. On the bridge in the bone-chilling wind, only his lips are exposed as he untiringly uses the loudspeaker to demand that the acrobat-suspended by wire-repeat his move again and again. Actor Sun Hsing thrusts with his sword, and a stuntman leaps 30-plus meters high. The same action is repeated again and again, but when the day is over, only a one-minute scene has been shot.
The wire dances wildly in the sky and the lake reflects the last rays of sunlight. The verse "The round sun sets against the long river" comes to mind, and Sun Hsing, sword in hand, is a poem in action.
Gu Long's kungfu novels are wildly imaginative and the relationships especially rich in emotion, but rendering them visually in several dozen episodes for a TV series-without losing the well knit plot or commercial appeal-has become second nature to the Taiwan producer, Young Pei-pei.
"Hong Kong screenwriter Bo Hua long ago dramatized the novels. Female directors are most sensitive to emotions, while male directors excel at action shots. Four directors work on each TV series: Two handle the mise-en-scene and one works solely on the martial arts, and after the film returns to Taiwan, the post-production director completes the process," says Young proudly. By way of contrast, just writing the script for the made-in-China The Yong Zheng Emperor took two years, and it required considerable research and was done with great attention to detail. But the pace is slow and thus wouldn't be appropriate for prime-time viewing, and has limited international box office appeal.
The producer, scriptwriter, director, photographer, editor and costume designer all come from different regions, yet communicate seamlessly. The division of labor among Taiwan film crews shooting in mainland China couldn't be more detailed. With more than 200 staff per TV series, each handling his own task, it's like a mini Hollywood, except that it's even more efficient.
Hung Jen-tsuo, who has experienced the shooting of Dragon in the Sky and other dramas based on Taiwan themes which won high audience share in Taiwan, sighs as he explains that although this film crew works at a surprisingly quick pace, the quality of its work is much more refined than that of the Taiwanese dramas which are shot just a few days before they are aired. And that is despite the slogan of those "can-do" film crews working in Taiwan: "One person should do the work of ten and one studio can be used to shoot ten different scenes."
"The idea that 'filming in China is cheap' is already out of date. The costs of locating a large team of people and equipment are unquestionably higher than shooting in Taiwan," says producer Hsu Chin-liang. The key consideration for everyone making the move into the mainland, despite its difficulty, is the very concept of drama. The availability in mainland China of a market, scenery, capital and so forth, furnishes Taiwanese producers with access to the combined resources of the Chinese film world, giving them the means to scale new artistic heights and shoot refined and grand dramas.
Scenery out of a painting
Although Taiwanese film crews made their move into the mainland only about ten years ago, the pace of their progress has been tremendous. The earliest point of attraction: Simply the lovely scenery there.
In 1989, the producer of How Many Suns Have Set? and Rain in the Mist as well as other famous romance films, Chiung Yao, returned to Hunan to visit her relatives. Having departed as a youngster but all grown up upon her return, Chiung Yao nonetheless found her hometown as lovely as ever, and it was then that she got the inspiration to film her old work, Six Dreams, in mainland China.
Wanjun, The Mute Wife and Three Flowers were all short pieces for TV with less than 20 episodes. But among Chiung Yao's novels, they are told more persuasively thanks to the fusion of romance with cold, desolate scenery.
In Wanjun, Yu Hsiao-fan plays a bride-to-be raised from her youth by the family into which she will marry upon adulthood. Lost in deep affection as she shuffles between three brothers, played by Liu Te-kai, Hsu Nai-lin and Shi Yu, in the end she causes the breakup of the family. The beauty and grandeur of the settings-filmed from Hunan to Yunnan, from mansions of the rich to bleak alleyways, with singing and dancing by China's ethnic minorities-took the Chinese world by storm at the time. Despite the "classic" Beijing accent of the mainland Chinese stars which Taiwanese found jarring, the TV series unexpectedly made a star out of the child actor Jin Ming, and unwittingly promoted cultural exchange between the peoples on both sides of the strait.
After Chiung Yao, kungfu film master Young Pei-pei proceeded to film her New Dragon Gate Guesthouse in mainland China in 1996. Fight scenes were no longer limited to the studio, and the massive expanses of desert scenery, complete with sandstorms, not only offered a new option to producers, but also wowed judges at the Golden Bell Awards.
The impact of Chiung Yao and Young Pei-pei inspired one Taiwanese producer after another to follow in their footsteps. Demand for specialized film sites in the mainland rose sharply, and with capital raised from various parties, a host of film studios were established, directly managed by or aided by members of Taiwanese artistic circles, each specializing in a different genre and era. Old-style housing and the landscape are no longer the mainland's sole point of attraction to Taiwanese producers.
Professional film studios
Feiteng Film Studio in Huairou outside Beijing offers mainly Ming and Qing dynasty and early Republican era sets, while ancient Qin and Han dynasty sets are concentrated in Zhejiang province's Hengdian Village. Shanghai's Shengqiang Film Studio is located in the south where the climate is pleasant throughout the year. Young Pei-pei established a small production center in Shanghai at the end of this year. Open to tourists, "film cities" of various sizes can also be found in Qingdao, Wuxi, Yunnan, Hunan and other places, each with its own rich local color.
A film crew may number as few as ten or as many as several hundred staff. Film studios in mainland China don't have just the sets for shooting a film. Often they provide everything needed from food to lodging and recreation. Feiteng Film Studio is an example. Within the 30-plus hectare studio grounds are a Beijing-style moat, royal gardens and a Chinese tavern, as well as a rural market, temple and wild marsh area which are laid out close by one another. Compared to this, Taipei's sole filming base featuring ancient China sets-Chinese Culture and Movie Center-seems rather like a poor cousin!
Feiteng also possesses five large-scale filming studios, 30,000 items of Ming and Qing dynasty clothing, several dozen fine horses, a greenhouse, an editing room, a warehouse for props and an atelier for furniture manufacture-all the knowhow and equipment needed to shoot a drama.
In order to help staff do their filming in a calm state of mind, there is a hotel, restaurant, workout gym and even a karaoke room, just like in a small-scale holiday village. According to young Taiwanese actor Huang Shao-chi who is taking part in the filming of Hsu Chin-liang's Roaring at Life at Feiteng, after work he can even play basketball with other staff. The meaning of "homesick" here is limited to thoughts of one's mother's cooking.
Hot money on the move
Thanks to cultivation by Taiwanese producers, mainland China's "filming base" has gradually matured. The fusion of capital and technology from both sides of the strait has both popularized and facilitated the screening of Chinese TV series, and helped them become a highly profitable consumer entertainment product. Within just a few years, TV series have fueled a huge upsurge in viewership among mainland Chinese audiences, and the commercial value of these series has multiplied untold times.
According to a survey by Lijiang Publishing House, The 2001 China TV White Paper, this upsurge has pushed the huge profits from TV series investment above those of real estate, and TV series are also driving the vibrant development of local TV stations. "Taiwan production costs for a prime-time TV series of ten episodes is NT$500,000, but in mainland China even the smallest productions will run at least RMB200,000 renminbi (nearly NT$900,000), while larger productions cost at least RMB400,000, which is four times the cost in Taiwan," explains famous agent Chen Shih-lung.
Over the last two years Taiwanese producers have therefore increased their visits to the mainland. As of November 2002, more than ten "Taiwan-produced" TV series were being filmed in mainland China, including Hsu Chin-liang's Roaring at Life at Beijing's Feiteng Film Studio, Chen Chih-chung's 18 Arhats in Wuxi, and Juan Chien-chih's Silent Girl in Hengdian. Even the "emperor" of traditional Taiwanese opera, Yang Li-hua, is using locations in Jiangnan (Zhejiang and southern Jiangsu) to film her new drama, Affection Between Ruler and Ruled.
Furthermore, Taiwanese producers have become the most sought-after partners of mainland Chinese investors. Even those producers who originally had no intention of filming in mainland China are being actively contacted by investors.
One year ago when Wu Tsung-te, producer of Miraculous Wife which was fantastically popular on both sides of the strait a decade ago, obtained the rights to adapt and film cartoonist Chu Te-yung's City Ladies and signed actor Rene Liu, he was approached by China International TV Company with an offer to supply sufficient capital for filming scenes in Shanghai, Hainan Island, Nanjing and so forth, and expense was to be no object.
Creative space, but. . .
Magnificent mountains and rivers, professional filming bases, plenty of capital, a big market. . . . There are as many as 300 TV stations in mainland China, and it can take several years to air a TV series throughout the country. The population numbers over one billion, and according to a survey by the China TV Program Ranking Commission, on average every citizen watched Chiung Yao's Romance in the Rain, the top ranking show in 2001, for some 514 minutes. What dramatist would not be keen on such a broad viewership?
While their horizons appear unlimited, in reality an inescapable distress weighs down the hearts of Taiwanese producers: They have managed to find space for development, but in terms of earning respect for their creativity they face severe limitations.
Beginning in 2000, the Chinese TV broadcasting authorities issued clear written guidelines specifying the permissible proportion of Hong Kong and Taiwanese staff in film crews. For prime time "national production" TV dramas, at most there can be only two Hong Kong or Taiwanese actors, and Hong Kong and Taiwanese producers and directors can not be credited.
"This makes choosing actors doubly difficult, and we have to adjust our methods of publicizing the shows." As an example, Wu Tsung-te points to City Ladies, which he produces. If he considers it purely from a commercial point of view, the best combination would be Rene Liu and Hsiao Chiang; but in order to strengthen the comedy factor, he chooses actor Chang Shih, who despite weak box office appeal, can ably handle humor. As for other mainland Chinese, in Taiwan and abroad they are even less "marketable."
"We have to do our best to 'use the drama to package the actors,' and make the most of the name recognition of the original cartoonist Chu Te-yung and of Rene Liu. Then we need to cooperate with Rock Records, and, by using familiar classic songs like "New Everlasting Love" and "Cross the Four Seas to See You," strike a responsive chord among the audience to boost the sense of drama," says Wu Tsung-te. These severe limitations means that he can only use such a "flexible approach," combine resources wherever he can find them, and thereby lower the risk of his "gamble" as much as possible.
Create your own brand name
Taiwanese producers may be faced with difficult choices, but the commercial opportunity represented by the huge demand for TV drama in mainland China has forced some "bending" of Chinese laws. Since TV dramas by Taiwanese producers continue to be a guarantee of box office success, Young Pei-pei's mainland Chinese partner has obtained for her the title of "artistic director," while Chiung Yao is packaged to appeal to the market as "screenwriter."
According to the analysis of Wu Yong, entertainment reporter at Beijing Evening News, although entertainment circles in mainland China have taken a long stride forward in learning techniques from Hong Kong and Taiwan, these artistic professionals can not abandon their "sense of culture." Thus they can be very detailed in a portion of their work, but the overall pace of the dramas they make lacks a sense of what sells commercially, and therefore they cannot surpass the "standard" represented by Hong Kong and Taiwanese productions.
"Over the last year the producer has become the guarantor of brand quality, pushing everyone to emphasize their uniqueness and 'create their own brand name,'" explains Hsu Chin-liang. For this reason, when producing Wind and Cloud, he specifically added more special effects, and invited Japanese star Chiba Shinichi and Thailand's "China Dolls" and other actors to star in it, in order to open up the international market, as well as to differentiate himself from Young Pei-pei.
These methods are indeed achieving measurable results. Wind and Cloud has already sold overseas rights-accounting for one-third of revenues-to buyers in Korea, Japan, Thailand, Central and South America, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. Add to that copyright royalties from both sides of the strait, and this TV series has already brought in royalties of NT$180 million for a net profit of NT$40 million.
"If the ongoing rights negotiations with a mainstream TV network in the USA are successful, then profits will rise even higher," says an excited Wu Tsung-te. This would mean that the export of TV series would no longer be the monopoly of Korea and Japan, and in the wake of the tide of international interest in Chinese kungfu movies such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the overseas market holds large potential.
Successful in China and out
Taiwanese know-how together with a mainland China production base and international markets-this is the new direction in the commercial minds of Taiwan's producers. Hsu Chin-liang points out that Korea's movie industry has risen quickly over the last two years, and besides earnest support from the government, this is also certainly related to the way Korean film studios have been energetically promoting their goods at international movie exhibitions.
"Exported Korean TV series and those of Japan are contemporary dramas. They are touting a lifestyle. Taiwan is also a lovely place, and there is a special ambience to life here," says Hsu Chin-liang. He believes that series built around an idol, such as Meteor Garden and City Ladies, combine the Taiwanese entertainment industry's experience in drama, music recording and celebrity management, and thereby offer new possibilities. He has already begun to essay producing "contemporary dramas" and cooperating with record companies, combining forces and working together to penetrate overseas markets.
Moreover, since idol-driven contemporary dramas can be filmed in highly urbanized Taiwan, this would not only be cheaper but staff could also be spared the experience of homesickness in mainland China.
Young Pei-pei also agrees with this viewpoint. She does not rule out the possibility of making such idol dramas in the future. "Although only a few Taiwanese idol dramas have succeeded, this is not because this route leads nowhere, but rather because very few have been carefully executed." She notes that the biggest market for Taiwanese dramas, Southeast Asia, besides purchasing kungfu series, only buys contemporary dramas. Once she has finished shooting the film now at hand, she will reconsider things for the long term and decide whether she will step into the market for idol dramas.
The TV series professional is both a businessperson and a dream-chaser. Before having fully traversed the land, the heart already longs for the sea.
By Lake Tai in the bone-chilling wind, Wu Hui-ming, director of Flying Sword Meets Flying Sword, has only just begun filming. Huddled next to the bridge sipping hot water, he is already speaking with actor Sun Hsing about his plans for next year's drama.
"It will be on location at a tropical beach, a 'contemporary drama' about lifeguards like Baywatch in America," he explains. His warm glance extends out toward the frozen lake, as if he can already see the tropical coral.
Young Pei-pei began producing television dramas in 1983. She has done nearly 30 serials, totaling more than 1000 hours. While she has worked in numerous genres, including wuxia (stories of Chinese chivalric martial arts masters), historical, period, and romantic, she is especially well-known for wuxia dramas. Virtually every one of her wuxia serials has won or been nominated for several Golden Bell Awards, setting the standard for this format. Since 1994, she has produced serials based on a number of the wuxia novels of Louis Cha, sparking the rise of the field of "Cha-ology" in academia.
Major televised serials:
1983 One Plus One Does Not Equal Two
1987 Returning a Bright Pearl to You
1988 Osmanthus Fragrance in August
1989 Spring Departure, Spring Return
1990 Love at the End of an Era
1991 Blue Seas and Azure Skies
1994 The Heaven Sword and the
1996 New Dragon Gate Guesthouse
1998 Return of the Condor Heroes
1999 Hua Mulan
1999 Proud Smiling Wanderer
2002 Tathagata Buddha's Divine Hand
Hsu Chin-ling is a major figure representing the crossover between film and TV dramas in Taiwan. In 1971, his film The Lonely Sword was shown at the Venice Film Festival. The later movie Lost in the Cloud-Wrapped Mountains made a star out of actress Hu Yin-meng. He made a number of films in the 1970s focusing on the concerns of young people that launched the "student film" vogue. He began making TV programs in the 1980s. In the 1990s, he got particularly high marks for his incisive political savvy. In 1994, as the political atmosphere was becoming increasingly open, during the first-ever elections for provincial governor and the mayors of special municipalities, Hsu began making his "Taiwan Trilogy" of dramatic serials, based on the White Terror period of the 1950s. He thus brought prime-time TV into contact with current events, and consequently is an important figure for the study of broadcasting history in Taiwan.
Major televised serials:
1988 Days of Joy and Sorrow
1989 The Postman Always Rings the Wrong Doorbell and The Postman Rings the Doorbell Again
1990 The Postman Rings the Doorbell for the Third Time and Honey, I Turned a Hero into a Beauty
1991 The Postman Rings the Doorbell for the Fourth Time
1992 Clan of Heroes
1994 A Taiwan Outlaws of the Marsh and Into the Future Hand in Hand
1996 The Romance of Taiwan
1999 The Taiwan Legend of Liao Tianding
2001 Father and Red Rose
2002 Wind and Cloud
The name Chiung Yao is virtually a synonym for romance novels in the Chinese literary community. Her first work, Outside the Window, published in 1963, describing the love between a teacher and a student, sent shockwaves through the Chinese world. Beginning in 1965, more than 50 films were made based on her novels, giving Taiwan a lead in Chinese-language romance films that lasted for a glorious 20 years. In 1986, she began independently producing dramatic serials for TV, and has done more than 20 so far. She began doing work in China in 1989, pioneering the "westward movement" of Taiwan television productions.
Major televised serials:
1986 How Many Suns Have Set and Rain in the Mist
1987 The Deep Courtyard
1988 Across the Water
1989 Colored Clouds Where the Seagull Flies
1990 Wanjun, The Mute Wife, Three Flowers and Xue Ko
1991 Widow's Cliff
1992 Green Grass by the River
1993 The Mark of the Plum Flower
1994 Caged in a Fog-Wreathed Mansion
1998 Princess Huan Zhu
1999 Princess Huan Zhu II
2001 Romance in the Rain
Wu Tsung-te has personally produced, written, and directed all of his works. He is especially adept at contemporary pieces. In 2002 he bridged the time-space gap between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait to make City Ladies, the most successful example yet of someone going to the mainland to make a contemporary comedy series. His series Taiwan Ghostly Incidents, in which two police officers investigate otherworldly happenings, has not only been rebroadcast many times, but sparked a whole series of copycat shows. There are many fan websites and chatrooms dedicated to this program, where people continue to discuss it with undiminished enthusiasm.
Major televised serials:
1988 The Third Eye
1989 The Society Files
1991 The Sound of Applause
1992 Tracks of the Tears of a Dream of Stardom
1993 Miraculous Dad
1994 Miraculous Wife
1995 Girl Thug
1996 Taiwan Ghostly Incidents
1997 Miraculous Wife II
1999 City Ladies
Attracted by the huge China market, Chinese-language film-makers have gone to the mainland in droves. The photo shows the Young Pei-pei production team working in Suzhou.
Young Pei-pei sets the pace for wuxia dramatic serials, with their tales of chivalrous Chinese martial arts heroes.
Martial arts films have taken the world by storm, and action director Cheng Hsiao-tung (left) is a hot property. In the picture he is directing the cameraman in the best way to capture a close-up of male lead Zhang Zhilin from Hong Kong (right). (courtesy of Young Pei-pei Production House)
Producer Hsu Chin-ling never fails to astonish. Besides launching the "student film" fad in the 1970s and making the historic "Taiwan Trilogy" in the early 1990s, he has more recently cracked open new international markets for Taiwan dramatic serials with Wind and Cloud.
Princess Huan Zhu was so popular that it has continued on in sequels. The photo shows the main performers in Princess Huan Zhu III (from right): Gu Juji, Huang Bian, Man Yin-li, and Zhou Jie. (courtesy of Jessle & Jones Production Co. Ltd.)
Chiung Yao is a legend in the fields of literature, film, and now TV dramas. Her love stores have proven immensely popular with Chinese all over the world for nearly four decades, and show no signs of fading. (photo by Lin Ching-yang)
Wu Tsung-te can do it all-writing, directing, producing.... He has a particularly good command of the rhythms and atmosphere for making comedy. (courtesy of Hung Jen Communications)
Building on the fame of Rene Liu (second from left) and the skills of Wu Tsung-te, the series City Ladies has bridged fashion differences across the Taiwan Strait and brought international renown to PRC actresses Chen Hao (first at left), Zhang Yan (second from right), and Xue Jianing (first at right). (courtesy of Hung Jen Communications)