Photo Credit: Where The Wind Settles
SINCE THE CHINESE economic miracle, the Taiwanese film industry has been awash with Chinese money. Such opportunistic investment in Taiwanese films may be view as a form of assistance, but underneath that surface, something darker lurks: soft power diplomacy. According to Liu Lee-shin, a China film expert at Taipei’s National Taiwan University of Arts, “Chinese-Hollywood co-productions are vehicles for Beijing to dictate the China narrative outside its borders.” It is thus no surprise that China would decide to shape its image on the island of Taiwan, which it seeks to annex.
This form of a cultural diplomacy already exists in Hollywood, as seen in the increasing presence of Chinese actors in Hollywood’s Blockbuster films. Is Hollywood looking east, or is the east looking west? There is room for debate, but China plans to grow the country’s current film and television production value to almost RMB 3 trillion by 2016 in the hope of extending China’s cultural influence worldwide. Furthermore, with China’s richest man, Wang Jianlin, purchasing AMC theaters for $2.6 billion in 2012, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that China is exploiting its newfound wealth to practice an form of expansionism by way of expanding cultural soft power.
How does the extension of power by culture function? The economic and political infrastructure that allows the influx of Chinese money and dictation already exist in Taiwan, formalized over the administrations of Presidents Chen Shui-bian and Ma Ying-jeou. One key theme in these films will be an increase in the thematic elements of desire and yearning for families across the strait in the plots of such films.
Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense said that it will not support the shooting of films and television programs involving Chinese investment. This decision was made public after an incident in which Taiwanese director Doze Niu, filming his new production, Paradise in Service (軍中樂園), was caught bringing a Chinese film crew into restricted military areas in Taiwan. The negative publicity caused the production to be suspended, but the public eventually saw it in the theaters on September of 2014. It is also rather ironic that there was no Chinese release planned despite the backing of the Huayi Media, a production company heavily subsidized by the Chinese government.
In this clear example of state manipulation of the media, how are we to ensure that further intervention in Taiwan’s film industry will not occur, especially since ownership and control are so easily obscured? With an increasing number of production companies in a country that values and respects human rights, the film industry in Taiwan is robust and diversified. However, these companies are small and in a state of constant competition, with low margins. Chinese money and cheap labor and location costs can ensure the survival of these small production companies. It obvious that Taiwan’s film industry needs greater support from the government or it will remain vulnerable to the enticement of Chinese money.
Large sums of money are also involved in ensuring that popular Chinese celebrities and Taiwanese celebrities to appear together in highly commercialized films such as Love (愛) and Tiny Times (小時代). Collaboration with Chinese actors and actresses is now no longer a taboo, and in fact, through the entertainment industry, the media is able to glorify the coming together of the marriages of the celebrities across the straits and attach cultural significance to it. Social and other media on both sides of the Straits will then convey the message that Taiwan and China constitute one big happy family, just the picture that Beijing’s propagandists want to portray.
In 2015, another film similar to Paradise in Service has arrived. Where the Wind Settles (風中家族) attempts to portray the reconciliation of their feelings for their “motherland”and for the land, Taiwan, that the protagonists will reside in for the remaining of their lives. These are just some of the films illustrating stories to constantly remind the general public that families were separated due to the civil war. These films have the theme: they are yearning to return home. The portrayal of their tremendous pain and loneliness informs viewers of the importance of opening up access and communication to the other side for peace and stability, and most importantly, to be reunited with family. Such representations have clear political implications.
In all areas of international life, China seeks to suppress and incorporate the presence of Taiwan. Does this Chinese reach into the theatre industry of Taiwan indicate that Taiwan’s arts industry is slowly losing its sovereignty to this drive? When the Communist Party came to power in 1949, filmmakers lost their creative freedom as films became propaganda tools. Now Beijing is using cash instead of directives to reshape Taiwan’s film industry in a similar manner. Hopefully the next administration will take a serious look at China’s influence over the Taiwanese film industry.