Formula 17

On November 30, 2004, a posting on the message boards of Yahoo! Taiwan’s movie website (1) asked readers a question that has perplexed directors, critics and policy makers: “Why can’t Taiwanese films rise?” Given how stubbornly little interest local audiences have shown to Taiwanese cinema in the past ten years, it’s amazing how vocal – and often heated – were the respondents that came out to trash or defend local cinema in the mere five days after the initial posting. As expected, the main response is that Taiwanese films are boring. “The scripts don’t attract audiences,” writes one Yahoo! user. “Please, we need some content,” says another. And there’s the perennial “our directors only make films to win awards at international festivals.” For fans of Taiwanese auteurs like Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang and Tsai Ming-liang, reading these lines is like hearing ungrateful children complaining about their parents.

But after a closer look at the 100+ responses, one notices that Hou, Yang and Tsai are rarely, if ever, mentioned. Instead respondents cite one particular director over and over as the epitome of why locals hate Taiwanese cinema: Chu Yin-ping. “We don’t have enough time to watch all of Hollywood’s films. So why spend money to watch Chu Yin-ping’s?” Another writes, “Chu Yin-ping killed Taiwanese cinema. What more can I say?” Filmgoers outside Taiwan and Hong Kong probably do not know Chu’s films, and for good reason. In the early 1990s, Chu directed a series of profitable but unimpressive action comedies, the most notable being those that starred two mischievous boys shaven and dressed like miniature monks and often co-starring a young Takeshi Kaneshiro. Chu made several films a year, including sexploitation thrillers and the Shaolin Popey series (1994–1995). Today, Chu’s films survive on the few cable channels in Taiwan that specialise in Hong Kong and local films. Given that nearly all the films of Hou, Yang and Tsai are unavailable for purchase or rental in Taiwan, it’s not surprising that most locals think of Chu when the topic of local cinema arises. Of course those who have seen the art films (often in Chinese classes in high school) still complain (“they’re too difficult to understand and make me feel stupid!”), but a good majority reads like this one: “Taiwan only knows how to produce boring comedies! They’re not realistic, otherwise they’re just special effects… The content is vulgar.” Thus the complaints against Taiwanese cinema are directed at both art and commercial cinema, leading policy makers, theater owners, and investors to steer clear from supporting Taiwanese films, drawing the local cinema closer to extinction.

Formula 17

However, a flicker of hope: every few posts, one encounters the names of a few titles of local films that “aren’t too bad”, as one poster puts it. Double Vision (Chen Kuo-fu, 2002) and Blue Gate Crossing (Yee Chin-yen, 2002) come up regularly, as does Formula 17 (Chen Yin-jung, 2004), which was a surprise hit among teenage and college-aged audiences, grossing NT$6 million, making it Taiwan’s highest grossing fiction film in 2004. Like Blue Gate Crossing, Formula 17 is a romantic comedy with homosexual themes made by young filmmakers who have no expectations when it comes to attracting audiences, yet somehow their breed of quirky, charming comedy appeals to its target demographic. With classic movie houses vanishing (captured most famously in Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye Dragon Inn), and megaplexes accompanying the island’s many new trendy malls, the average age of movie-goers has descended. Going to the movies is now a social activity – something to do on dates and with friends. Hollywood spectacles are still popular of course, but suddenly so are films that reflect middle-class, teenage, urban lifestyles. It’s not surprising then that the Chinese title for Formula 17 is 17 Year-old’s World. While such films still receive limited releases compared to American pictures, they now play in more than one theatre for more than a week, the usual sentence for local productions. I would argue that these films aren’t anomalies, but a signal of the resuscitation of mainstream film in Taiwan, not only because the content has risen over that of Chu Yin-ping’s embarrassing filmography, but also because filmmakers are learning to market the films to an audience roughly the same age as the young, independent writers and directors.

That Formula 17 was so successful was a shock given the fact that the entire film has no women. Better yet, the film is constructed in such a way that the audience can assume that every character in the romantic comedy is a gay man. In Hollywood, this idea would have been stricken before a script was even written; in Taiwan, post-Chu, post-Hou filmmakers have a hazy conception of what mainstream audiences want, so anything goes, even a conceit as seemingly radical as a gay utopia. The story is standard fare with a twist. A bashful country bumpkin named Tien (Tony Yang) treks north to Taipei to rendezvous with a chat room acquaintance. The meeting is a disaster but soon Tien falls for the notorious playboy Bai. What follows is essentially boy wants boy, boy gets boy, boy loses boy, boy regains boy. The turning points grind like clockwork, complete with flamboyant sidekicks who nurse heartache with flowers and romantic prose.

Yet audiences who complained that Taiwanese films don’t have original scripts didn’t seem to mind. (They also tolerate Hollywood films, but that’s a different story.) Apparently, young audiences were won over by the freewheeling style. More than one comment on the message board noticed the film’s “interesting camerawork,” probably referring to Chen’s use of flashbacks, dream sequences, ellipses, song montages, intercutting, and direct gazes at the camera. Unhampered by the demands of distributors and studios, the Taiwanese mainstream filmmakers have inherited Hou, Yang and Tsai’s spirit of experimentation, but not the endless takes and long shots. In short, Chen has perfected the incorporation of music video techniques in creating an idiosyncratic, popular film style. Music video, a medium most fledgling local directors rely on to finance their own works, is perhaps the most lucrative audiovisual form in Taiwan, since MTV and V Channel constantly demand videos (sometimes up to four or five videos for each major CD release), buses need on-board music videos to entertain riders, and singers need filler for bundled VCD and DVDs for special edition versions of their new albums (for some acts, this can be up to two per year). Those who decry the low quality of Taiwanese cinema are constantly immersed in and purchasing works produced by those very directors whose films they can’t stand. It was Chen Yin-jung that synthesised the music video style into a narrative language young people understand; if anything, this is her contribution to Taiwanese cinema. This summer, I talked to a sound mixer at the Central Motion Picture Corporation (a government-owned production company once responsible for some of the most popular films in East Asia such as Lee Hsing’s Beautiful Duckling [1965], but is now struggling to stay alive) who admitted to being baffled by why the teenage audience was laughing and responding so delightfully to the film. The young audiences are responding to the film’s teenage vernacular. At a recent Taiwanese film festival, Formula 17 was heralded as one of the representative works of the “7th graders” generation, which refers to the 7th decade of Taiwanese born after the beginning of the republic of China in 1911, that is, Taiwanese born between 1981 and 1990. In contemporary Taiwanese society, the “7th graders” are known as a privileged generation born during the economic boom and therefore didn’t experience the economic, cultural, and political turbulence of their parents and grandparents. The incorporation of music video styles is one way the 7th grade filmmakers are reaching out to its peers. Another is the integrated use of middle-class technology. In Formula 17, as well as the recent Taipei 21 (Alex Yang, 2003) and Love of May (Hsu Hsiao-ming, 2004), cellular phones, instant messaging, and e-mail are not just props but are media through which important communication, misunderstandings, and reconciliations are made possible (2).

Formula 17

However, style and content alone don’t draw audiences into theatres, especially in a market where locals are so prejudiced against their own films. Formula 17‘s miracle was that it found a formula for attracting audiences. The film was produced by Three Dots Entertainment, whose founders started off in film marketing and distribution (3). They created a movie poster that shows the leading man Tien in nothing except boxers and a blazer unbuttoned to reveal his bare, decently sculpted chest. On the poster, both Tien and Bai are casually smiling, seemingly to deflect the stereotype of Taiwanese cinema characters as being terminally despondent. In the poster, as well as the trailer, the homosexual relationship is more than suggested (the trailer even reveals their big kiss) but it is not made to feel “heavy” as in the films of Tsai Ming-liang, so as to retain the atmosphere of a romantic comedy while squeezing squeals out of giddy teenage girls. Featured prominently in the commercial is the film’s theme song “I Think Your Happiness is Because of Me” by local pop-rock act Rock Bang, whose debut CD Proof of Life was released only a month before Formula 17. The symbiosis between the two products was spearheaded by the song’s music video, directed by Chen Yin-jung herself and featuring clips from the film. While the use of theme songs is hardly new in Chinese cinemas, the use of the music video shows that the film is directly targeting a certain audience and is promising that the film will adhere to a certain music video vocabulary, namely fast cutting, cross-cutting, unusual camera setups, and, of course, popular song (4).

The film’s greatest assets are the actors. Though Formula 17 was actor Tony Yang’s first film, he was already known as an actor in soap operas, which could be Taiwan’s second most lucrative audiovisual industry after music videos. Yang was known for bit parts in the series First Love (2003), Love Train (2003), and Crystal Boys (2003), which is based on the groundbreaking gay novel by Taiwanese writer Pai Hsien-yung. The film’s other major actor, Duncan Chow, was even more well known, having appeared in the series Lover of Herb (2004) and Legend of Speed (2004) among others. Both Yang and Chow are well-built and undeniably good-looking, while they project amiable personalities. The audiences for these lowbrow television programs are young, energetic consumers, and by recruiting Yang and Chow, Formula 17 exploited the fact of a built-in audience. In many ways, Formula 17 is a flashier, more energetic retelling of a standard soap opera story, condensed to 90 minutes and featuring the gay twist. Given this kind of reading, the film seems like a genre experiment, taking one formula and molding a new one, hoping that it will spawn a new Taiwanese film industry.

What sets Formula 17 apart from earlier mainstream films (such as Chu’s) is that critics are actively taking notice. Nobody is hailing the film a masterpiece by any means, but festival programmers find its freshness and popularity hard to ignore. Formula 17 debuted at the Taipei Film Festival in March, played at the Pusan Film Festival in September, and screened at the Golden Horse Film Festival in November, where Tony Yang won an award for best newcomer. The film’s success led the programmers of the Tailly High – New Talents, Young Cinema Film Festival to dedicate an entire showcase to the upcoming acting talents of Taiwanese cinema, with both Yang and Chow highlighted as faces to watch. Tailly High took place at Spot – Taipei House, which, since its opening in 2002, has become a hub for cinephilia in Taipei. In fact, the rise in popularity and critical acceptance of a film like Formula 17 is made possible by Spot, which is run by the Taiwan Film and Culture Society and managed by Hou Hsiao-hsien, who has in recent years been among the most vocal supporters of a mainstream cinema in Taiwan (5). Spot’s mission is to provide a venue for non-Hollywood productions. Among its recent programs are Lars von Trier’s Dogville, Aki Kaurismaki’s Man Without a Past, and Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Monrak Transistor, as well as Taiwanese productions such as Wayne Peng’s documentary Burning Dreams and Alex Yang’s Taipei 21. The ambience of Spot contributes to the atmosphere of serious film going. In the same building are a coffee shop and a bookstore that has Taiwan’s best collection of film books and local films. Spot attracts college-aged film lovers who trust that films playing at Spot are pre-screened for quality (6). And whereas smaller films playing at mainstream theatres disappear after a week if business can’t compare with Hollywood blockbusters, Spot schedules its programs in advance so audiences can rely on a fixed calendar. Formula 17 was so popular among the Spot crowd that even after its initial three week run, the film was rolled back out for a Valentine’s Day program, as well for the Tailly High festival.

Formula 17

Now that Formula 17 has proposed a possible formula for a mainstream Taiwanese cinema – using music video and soap opera formulas, joining forces with the music industry, recruiting good-looking acting talent, and appealing to both the mall culture crowd and the cinephiles – what does the film mean for the art of Taiwanese cinema? Nobody expects a teen genre film to supplant the festival boys – Hou, Yang, Tsai – as some of the most exciting voices in world cinema. However, as I mentioned before, the fact that mainstream Taiwanese cinema is still untreaded territory means that filmmakers, distributors and marketers have the opportunity to produce meaningful products which project a multiplicity of voices, especially in a time of great political and social uncertainty. Is a radical mainstream cinema possible? The infant industry can certainly try. While the masters of the Taiwan new wave (Hou, Yang, Wu Nien-jen), the “second wave” (Tsai, Ang Lee), and the new generation (Chang Tso-chi, Lin Cheng-sheng) are all men, Formula 17 was directed by a 24 year-old woman and is explicitly about sexual orientation. However, is Formula 17 as radical as the premise suggests? The film is far from the patriarchal, nationalistic The Wedding Banquet (Ang Lee, 1993), (7) but still functions by presenting standard gay types: the flamboyant homosexual, the cross-dresser, the well-dressed playboy, etc. Also, like The Wedding Banquet, none of the leading gay characters are played by homosexual actors, so therefore the audience’s joy of seeing the film is to see straight teenage guys kiss each other (8). In addition, since the film plays on cliches of the romantic comedy genre, audiences, particularly straight female ones, can easily identify with the Tien character by switching his gender without a huge stretch of the imagination. There are plenty of cues for standard generic emotional identification: kissing one’s reflection in a mirror, sulking after a breakup, writing “I love you” in the sand on a beach, mushy phone conversations, reciting “I love you” in a dozen languages, gossiping about each other’s romantic escapades. In essence, the film’s gay male utopia can be read as a straight female utopia. The film’s final scenes are standard melodramatic fare – a romantic misunderstanding is followed by a well-timed chase scene – so as the viewer is sucked into the Manichean plot, Tien’s gender neutralises. However, I would argue that the very fact that every character in the film is potentially a gay man is a daring, if not radical, move. When an old man who Tien and Bai meet on the street turns out to be gay, it is not only a comical moment, but an exciting and liberating one. In addition, the very evident effort the filmmakers paid to making the film a gay male utopia draws attention to its constructedness, and therefore the mechanism of cinema to construct and potentially exclude minority identities. The fact that such a utopia includes instantly recognisable Taipei locations such as Warner Village, Ximending, and especially Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall (the ultimate symbol of conservatism in Taiwan), suggests a playful queering of Taipei. Finally, the big revolution at the end of the film is that Bai’s fear of commitment stems from childhood trauma – a fortune-teller predicts that all of Bai’s future lovers will be cursed, a standard trope in Chinese melodrama and soap operas, but in this case it could also refer to the fact that Bai is a homosexual (the fortune-teller in contemporary Taiwanese society is a symbol of old, patriarchal, and repressive beliefs (9); in addition, directly behind the seated fortune-teller are drawings of a man and a woman, perhaps suggesting that he stands for heterosexuality). The resolution of the film rests on Bai’s breaking away from traditional superstition and embracing his own desires. “What’s fate got to do with it? If you’re afraid of getting hurt, just admit it!” screams Alan, one of the film’s three flamboyantly gay characters, so when Bai decides to run after his lost love, we can read the melodramatic resolution as a radical (homosexual) act breaking the character from outmoded (heterosexual) tradition.

In a time when it seems that any cinematic voice other than Hollywood’s is a godsend, Formula 17 proposes (although it doesn’t elaborate on) a multiplicity of Taiwanese voices. The film does this literally by depicting a Taiwan of many languages. Characters like to sprinkle English in their conversations, perhaps a nod to the teenage audiences suffering through English cram courses, and one character even has a white boyfriend, acknowledging Taipei’s expatriate population, although not explaining it (10). Cantonese is heard spoken by Bai and his friend Jun, who are architects who do business throughout East Asia. Surprisingly, the Taiwanese language is missing in the film, but we do hear it prominently in Taipei 21; in addition, Love of May explores variations within Mandarin itself, not just differences in accent, but in usage as well – much of the humour comes from the linguistic misunderstandings during a love affair between a Taiwanese boy and a visiting mainland Chinese dancer. Of course, Hou Hsiao-hsien developed the experimental use of language as early as A Time to Live and a Time to Die in 1985, but its appearance in recent mainstream works shows the extent to which younger directors have been influenced by the new wave pioneers. While I wouldn’t call Formula 17 a radical film, the gay utopia it represents suggests the inchoate mainstream cinema’s malleability in terms of style and content. Chen Yi-jung’s film has discovered a working blueprint for marketing and exhibition, and hopefully the emerging “7th graders” will employ it to energetically fashion a mainstream cinema free of narrative and aesthetic formulas.

Endnotes

  1. Why Can’t Taiwanese Films Rise?” Yahoo! Taiwan Movies Message Boards, November 30–December 4, 2004.
  2. The use of technology also makes possible product placement and symbiosis, as was the case with Love of May and BenQ, a maker of cellular phones.
  3. Caroline Gluck, “Can Youth Save Taiwan Film?International Herald Tribune, November 26, 2004
  4. This marketing technique was also employed for that summer’s Love of May, which had hoped to exploit the mega success of pop-rock sensation Mayday, although to lesser success.
  5. For Hou’s thoughts on why Taiwan needs popular films, as well as his opinions on transnational Asian productions, see his comments made at a seminar at Spot in 2002, edited and published in the first issue of the online film journal Rouge. Hou Hsiao-hsien, “In Search of New Genres and Directions for Asian Cinema”, translated by Lin Wenchi, Rouge, no. 1, 2003.
  6. It’s worth noting that other 2004 mainstream Taiwanese releases Love of May and West Town Girls (Alice Wang) were not shown at Spot.
  7. See Cynthia W. Liu, “To Love, Honor, and Dismay: Subverting the Feminine in Ang Lee’s Trilogy of Resuscitated Patriarchs”, Hitting Critical Mass: A Journal of Asian American Cultural Criticism, vol. 3, no. 1, winter 1995, pp. 1–60.
  8. The making-of featurette on the Taiwanese version of the DVD includes an extended section on the preparation of the love scene, showing that the film is not necessarily promoting acceptance of gay themes, but is offering the thrill of seeing their idols flirt with deviant sexuality, which is hardly a radical reading.
  9. For a discussion of the sexual politics of fortune-telling in Taiwanese soap operas, see Lin Szu-Ping, “The Woman with Broken Palm Lines: Subject, Agency, Fortune-Telling, and Women in Taiwanese Television Drama” in Jenny Kwok Wah Lau (ed.), Multiple Modernities: Cinemas and Popular Media in Transcultural East Asia, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 2003, pp. 222–237.
  10. Edward Yang’s Mahjong (1996) examines the economic role of whites in Taiwan and his treatment of American and French characters has a nuance and political sophistication that is lacking in popular films like Formula 17 and Taipei 21.

About The Author

Brian Hu is a critical studies student at the UCLA School of Theater, Film & Television. His interests include Chinese cinemas and popular music in film. He is the review editor of Mediascape and a contributor to Asia Pacific Arts.