Nobody ever imagined that Cape No. 7 would rewrite the history of Taiwanese cinema. But something we can foresee is that Wei Te-sheng's next film Seediq Bale, with its expected price tag of US$10 million (NT$330 million), will have the highest production cost of any locally produced movie over the past half century. So where's the money supposed to come from?
The scene: A beautiful panoramic view of mountains enshrouded by clouds and graced with a gurgling mountain stream. Suddenly, a machete-wielding hunter drops nimbly from a tree, chases down a Japanese soldier and, with one mighty stroke, lops off his head. The stirring narration: "The Japanese outnumber the stones in Zhuoshui River and the trees in the forest, but our determination is more solid than Mt. Qilai!" The Seediq People, who have lived in harmony with the land and their ancestral spirits since time immemorial, are willing to lay down their lives defending their beliefs and dignity, so that they can cross to the other side of the rainbow-the gateway to the land of the spirits of their ancestors.
This five-minute movie trailer has been making the rounds on the Internet for the past five years, but a lack of funds has brought production to a halt. With the success of Cape No. 7, the screenplay for Seediq Bale, put away into a drawer years ago by Wei Te-Sheng, can finally be taken out and dusted off. It's been given a second lease on life.
Taiwan's own Ring trilogy
Many people might ask why Wei Te-Sheng is so interested in the resistance of Taiwan's Aborigines against Japan.
A diminutive, bespectacled graduate of the electrical engineering department of Far Eastern Vocational School in Tainan, Wei has never taken a day of movie-related courses in his life. He began working in film and television production in 1993, serving as codirector to Edward Yang in Mahjong and to Chen Guofu for his movie Double Vision. Like so many starry-eyed new directors, Wei learned his trade on the job.
In 1997, at a time when coverage of the handover of sovereignty over Hong Kong to the PRC was splashed across the news media, a small group of Aborigines from eastern Taiwan went north to demonstrate, launching a movement in which they demanded that their land be returned to them. This caught Wei Te-Sheng's attention.
"This land that we are standing on-it feels both familiar and strange at the same time, and our emotions are mixed as a result," explains Wei. The Aborigines, so fierce and warlike in our mind's eye, are so insignificant and powerless in the concrete jungle of the city. "Even more bizarre is the fact that what belongs to the children of Taiwan (the Aborigines), we don't return to them, while what doesn't concern us (the return of Hong Kong to China), occupies our hearts."
While reading through historical materials about Taiwan's Aborigines, Wei was moved by the story of Mona Rudao's heroic death. In 1931, at a time when Japanese rule over Taiwan was peaceful, why did Mona Rudao choose war with the Japanese, catching them totally flat-footed in the process?
"Our ideas of Aborigines all come from historical black-and-white photographs that can't talk. Very few consider the Wushe Incident from the viewpoint of warriors on the battlefield." Wei is confident that this new Taiwan war epic of his will be spoken of in the same breath with Daniel Day-Lewis' The Last of the Mohicans and Mel Gibson's Braveheart.
Foreign investors welcome
The storyboards for Seediq Bale consist of five volumes measuring over ten centimeters in thickness when stacked. Obviously, a work of this magnitude isn't going to be made on the cheap, but Wei already has almost a third of the NT$330 million that he needs to raise.
Taiwanese directors seem to be intent on producing "artsy films aimed at European audiences." The Government Information Office wants to reverse this bizarre trend and ensure that directors with their finger on the pulse of the market can get the financing they need. Furthermore, it wants to transform the Domestic Film Guidance Fund from handouts used to subsidize directors that could never make it on their own to a system rewarding the successful. With this in mind, in October of 2008 the GIO announced a new plan to give the equivalent of 20% of the ticket sales of any movie that earns more than NT$50 million to the directors of that movie to help them produce their next film. Wei, for example, is looking at NT$104 million in assistance to shoot Seediq Bale. What about the other two-thirds?
Wei Te-Sheng points out that in the wake of Cape No. 7's success, some people not in the movie business are eager to invest in Seediq Bale. Problem is, "Such issues as investment, recouping costs, and the profit-sharing mechanism employed by Taiwan's film industry are much different from those of traditional industries. Some investors want to make a safe investment, but how am I supposed to guarantee anything?" Wei hasn't directed many films and there's no way to know how much overseas rights can be sold for. Generally, business transactions of this sort aren't made until after a trial screening.
To take Cape No. 7 as an example of how profit sharing is done in Taiwan, after deducting the NT$50 million in production costs from the NT$520 million in ticket sales, movie theaters get 60% and the film distributor 10% of the remaining profits. There's not as much left over as many might think (only about NT$140 million). Once investors discover the business is not as profitable as they'd imagined, they tighten their purse strings.
"We hope to find prospective investors in Taiwan's film industry, people that understand the rules of the game and that can distribute films. Our funding structure will be half local and half foreign investors to facilitate penetrating the overseas market. Seediq Bale's producer Jimmy Huang confides that contact has been made with film distributors in Japan, Korea, and the PRC, but that nothing's set in stone yet.
Shooting Seediq Bale is expected to commence in October, but finding actors for the film has been almost if not more difficult than rustling up money.
"The amateurs in the trailer didn't have that reckless courage in their eyes and professional actors that we've looked at don't have the look of the natural hunter like Mona Rudao." Wei Te-Sheng shares the example of The Last of the Mohicans, which depicts a white pioneering community in 19th-century America that is slaughtered. The one boy who survives the massacre is adopted and raised by a tribe of Indians. The fact the boy, played by British actor Daniel Day-Lewis, is the lead character, suggests the filmmakers couldn't find any Native Americans to play a lead role. In Wei's case, that has been the reality.
Special effects fall short
The filming of Seediq Bale will take place in Taiwan's high mountain forests where some of the big challenges that filmmakers will face will include transporting equipment and having actors hunt and live like Aborigines, so that it looks like they belong there.
Audiences will see strong and dexterous actors, but your average actor can't move as nimbly as indigenous people born and raised in the mountains. Special effects, an area in which Taiwan moviemakers are weak, will be needed for that.
Huang, who produced such horror flicks as Double Vision and Silk, says that although the projected layout for Seediq Bale is breaking local records, it pales in comparison to the US$70 million forked out to make Red Cliff.
He goes on to say that when production first began on Silk, he and his production team had intensive talks with Taiwanese 3D animation studio CGCG. When they saw the special effects animations CGCG had made for Hollywood studios, they felt they were just what they were looking for. But later they discovered that the results fell short of the mark in terms of both experience and technique. Furthermore, CGCG's quote for the work was some three times higher than competitors in Hong Kong. So due to time and cost considerations, most special effects production was moved to Hong Kong.
In the end, the results still fell short of their expectations and the film was ripped apart by the critics. For example, when the ghost played by Wan Fang crawled out of the ground, the action was very unnatural. Then there's the scene at the end where the car driven by leading male Chang Chen crashes into a subway station. The scene fades and cuts out before the audience knows what is happening. The special effects flaws are blatant and detract from the overall effect of the movie.
Whether in raising capital or enhancing film industry technology, "Many ideas have to be decided during the execution stage and compromises have to be made if you are going to move forward. To exist in this industry, you have to strike a balance between sticking to your guns and compromising your ideas," Wei Te-Sheng explains. "It's expensive to make movies." Wei has never considered it practical to make a living shooting films. He simply has stories that he wants to tell. Now that he has attracted a lot of attention to himself, he is feeling pressure.
But as movie critic Chi Wei-jan puts it, "Moviemaking in Taiwan didn't meet its demise overnight and it's not going to suddenly be revitalized by one box-office hit." Let's just leave the issue of saving Taiwan's film industry to the experts-the directors to shoot good films and the audience to enjoy them. Isn't that what movies are all about in the first place?