Tag Archives: Din Tao

Taiwan Film Days becomes a SF mainstay

Taiwan Film Days (TFD), the only yearly Taiwanese film festival in the States, opened its three-day program on November 1. Hosted by the San Francisco Film Society (SFFS), this year’s line-up included the island’s hit, Zone Pro Site: the Moveable Feast and seven other films.

Three filmmakers were also on hand at the 5th TFD to attend their film’s Northern California screenings and to participate in the Q&A which followed. They included Hou Chi-jen, director of When a Wolf Falls in Love with a Sheep, Hsieh Chun-yi, director of Apolitical Romance, and Mimi Wang, producer of Ripples of Desire.

Starting from Cape No. 7

Since 2006, the Press Division of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) in San Francisco has worked with major Bay Area colleges and universities to hold the Taiwan Film Festival. During certain years, the program would extend to campuses in Utah, Nevada, Washington and Oregon. But, given the division’s limited staff and the extensive multi-state and campus coordination needed, the concentration shifted to partnering with the San Francisco Film Society and localizing the festival in the Bay Area.

In 2009, Manfred Peng, the new press director of TECO, began discussions with Graham Leggat, the then executive director of SFFS, regarding organizing an annual Taiwanese themed film festival. Leggat, both personable and an avid supporter of Taiwan films, agreed to organize a festival and Taiwan Film Days was born.

Founded in 1957, the SFFS holds the annual San Francisco International Film Festival, the longest-running international film festival on the West Coast. Each May, this highly competitive festival screens a selection of 150 films from around the world. SFFS, a proponent of Taiwanese cinema, has played a pioneering role in introducing Taiwan-made films to Bay Area audiences. Its San Francisco International Film Festival has shown over 40 Taiwanese films over the years. Works by leading figures—Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tsai Ming-liang and Edward Yang—have been featured, and prominent actor Lee Kang-sheng was a Festival guest in 1998.

With SFFS’s track record and its extensive mailing list of Bay Area film lovers, this collaborative effort allowed TECO to reach further off campus. Not only was the SFFS a prestigious and trusted institution, its staff members were also well-connected to the American film industry, giving visiting filmmakers from Taiwan a chance to learn more from their host. Also, since the films were selected by a third party with a sterling reputation, the films were given more legitimacy.

Five years ago, Taiwan’s movie industry also underwent a revival with the introduction of Cape No. 7, a local blockbuster. The first Taiwan Film Days was born in the wake of this Taiwanese film renaissance. Through the selection of SFFS, Cape No. 7 and six other newly produced feature films and documentaries tested the American market by selling tickets at movie theaters in San Francisco. The box office result of the three-day festival was good enough that Leggat renewed the festival for the next year. It is now a part of the SFFS fall program, along with more well-established festivals such as French Cinema Now and New Italian Cinema.

SFFS, seasoning Taiwan’s filmmakers

Most of Taiwan’s film companies are small, lacking in foreign language talent and international experience. In order to broaden the visiting director’s experience, SFFS would invite some directors of the participating films to meet American audiences, filmmakers, teachers and students at participating film schools. This allowed the visiting filmmakers to gain a better understanding of the US market.

Since the inception of the Taiwan Film Festival and Taiwan Film Days by the Press Division, it has welcomed more than 50 Taiwanese filmmakers/producers and screened over 70 movies since 2006. As a result, San Francisco has become the “launch pad” for Taiwan filmmakers to test how their movies will translate to an American market.

In 2012, when Taiwanese blockbuster Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale was screened at cinemas in the US, the box office in the Bay Area took top place among major US cities. In part, this can be attributed to the long-term marketing and steady cultivation of the local audience by TECO for Taiwan-made films.

Since the launch of Taiwan Film Days five years ago, many have come to known Leggat. When he passed away in 2011, Taiwanese directors joined a vast numbers of international directors in expressing their condolences. Since then, two subsequent executive directors have also renewed their support for Taiwan Film Days, with the festival growing each successive year. Inspired by the success of Taiwan Film Days, Hong Kong has also followed TECO’s model by holding its own festival in cooperation with SFFS starting 2011.

A useful tool to promote soft power

Movies have become a tool for Taiwan’s diplomatic offices overseas to promote Taiwan’s soft power. Since the 1990s, Taiwan’s films have steadily appeared in international film festivals, promoting the international appeal of Taiwanese directors. Taiwan’s films showcase the island’s way of life in a manner that is easily assimilated into the general consciousness. And, film screenings required little overseas personnel and are not cost prohibitive to stage, unlike other forms of performing arts or exhibitions.

In October 2010, TECO held Taiwan Film Days as scheduled. About the same time, the Chinese Film Festival opened in San Francisco, screening the Founding of a Republic, one of the most costly films ever to be made in mainland China. In a review of the two festivals, San Francisco Chronicle commented that the two sides of the Taiwan Strait held their respective film festivals, but there were big differences between the topics of their films. “Mainland China makes films with a collective bent and Taiwan makes smaller, more independent and individualistic movies,” the article noted. Along with the review was a poster of Taiwanese film Somewhere I Have Never Traveled, directed by Fu Tian-yu. Fu and other directors invited to attend the screenings of TFD were proud to read that comparison.

An American couple was asked about their loyal support of the festival, buying a book of tickets and watching almost every film screened each year. What accounted for their enthusiasm for Taiwan films? The wife responded that her father was a missionary in mainland China and that is why she is so fond of Chinese culture. She believes that Taiwan’s movies highlight social issues and the humanitarian spirit, which is not seen in most mainland Chinese movies.

Ministry of Culture takes over film promotion

As a city with a high concentration of different ethnicities and cultures; San Francisco is a wonderful venue for TFD. Asians alone account for 30 percent of the city’s population. By and large, the city’s demographic is highly educated, well-traveled and economically comfortable, making it a fertile ground to promote Taiwan’s soft power.

Up to 1,500 people attend the festival each year, with half of them being ethnic Chinese or Taiwanese. And of that segment, half of them are American-born Chinese (ABC). They do not understand Mandarin, but are more economically and politically tied to America. This also is a particularly good group for TECO to nurture since they are also culturally tied to Taiwanese and Chinese culture – or would like to be – yet wield certain influences in the States. An example can be seen during the Q&A session of last year’s Joyful Reunion, when an English speaking ethnic Chinese writer complimented director Tsao Jui-yuan, saying that Tsao’s work gave her a better understanding of Taiwan.

This year, the main sponsor for the festival came from Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture (MOC), a newly formed government agency charged with promoting Taiwan-made films. In previous years, the festival’s main collaborator was the Government Information Office (GIO). However due to restructuring in the Taiwan government, the GIO was disbanded in 2012 and most of its work shifted to the MOC or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA). Since TFD is the only festival dedicated to Taiwan-made films in the States, the MOC is committed to continuing and growing the festival from their office in Los Angeles.

Many challenges for Taiwan films to break into US market

Each year, Peng and SFFS’s programmers, Sean Uyehara and Rachel Rosen, have sifted through Taiwan’s most recent films, narrowing it down to 20 to 30 films to watch. Once selected, Peng watches the selected films at the festival screenings again. In total, he has watched almost 150 Taiwan movies in the past five years, in addition to repeatedly watching certain movies at smaller venues throughout the Bay Area. With his clear mandate to promote Taiwan-made films, he had never watched so Taiwanese many movies before arriving in the States. Because of this, “Colleagues at other overseas offices have asked for my opinion. I’ve become a semi-professional movie critic, giving recommendations on which films are good to screen at the festivals.” Although Peng happily promotes the movies selected for the festival, he also has a sharp eye for movies that do not make the festival, but are noteworthy. One such film is The Soul of The Bread. Going on his personal instincts, Peng started promoting the light-hearted romantic comedy locally. It soon became a popular audience favorite throughout the Bay Area.

Peng said, “Working to promote Taiwanese films in America, I feel I have kept up with the growth of Taiwan’s film industry. My attitude has changed from being indifferent to one of enthusiasm.” Because of his work, he noted the following challenges for Taiwanese films in entering the US market.

Since the late 1980s, a number of new Taiwanese directors have focused on targeting the metropolitan middle class, catering to international film festivals, and not to Taiwan’s domestic market and the Taiwanese taste. However Cape No. 7 changed all of that. It reversed the direction of Taiwan’s producers, turning their eyes to the underlying theme of uneducated characters in the country side. Coupled with the Taiwanese government’s subsidy based on box office receipts, Taiwan’s filmmakers have readily turned to the domestic film market to seek topics and style, Peng said.

Ten years ago, Taiwan-made films accounted for only 3 percent of the total revenue of the island’s theaters. It now stands at 18 percent as of last year, showing a surge of people going to theaters to watch locally made films. With commercial viability of Taiwan-made films realized, movies have been targeting Taiwan’s young adults, who are the largest consumer segment for films. Recent film plots have included first love, encouraging stories of perseverance and hard work, youthful rebellion into crime, and stories centering on the lower middle class society found in night markets and rural villages, to the marginalized in Taiwan. Peng said it is rather difficult to select six to eight different styles of movies to reflect the different plotlines or not to repeat them during the festival.

Cultural divide still a barrier

Although movies are a universal language, the cultural barrier is still a difficult divide to overcome. It is not easy to attract Americans to spend half a day in a theater watching foreign movies. American theaters only screen a handful of non-English films throughout the year, mainly French and Italian movies. American television channels also rarely play Asian movies. This is the reality that TECO faces in promoting Taiwanese films in the US.

Furthermore, Taiwanese film budgets are far less than that in Europe or America, and usually lack a superstar cast or dazzling special effects. The key for Taiwanese films in standing out is the script. Like the US, there are many instances where a low cost indie film succeeds at the box office by touching on topics or stories that resonate with an audience.

Given this handicap, it is natural for Taiwanese films to localize its subject. However, by localizing the humor, storytelling and centering on Taiwan’s lower middle class, much of the meaning is lost in translation. And if you need to explain a joke, it’s not funny. After watching Din Tao, a very popular Taiwanese movie at TFD last year, some of the American audience were confused by why such a group would want to carry the load of a heavy puppet while traveling around the island, or even climbing the mountain?

After Edward Yang and Ang Lee

Last year, the SFFS specially screened A Brighter Summer Day, directed by Edward Yang, which was the only non-current film shown since the establishment of TFD. Peng was originally dubious of its attraction, since the movie was more than two decades old. But to his surprise, it played to a full house with the vast majority of the audience being non-Asian. It was a testament to the quality of the film since its running time is nearly four hours, and no one seemed bored or left early. At the invitation of the festival, Edward Yang’s widow Peng Kai-li also came to the screening and was deeply touched by the film’s reception. The packed house renewed TECO’s hope about marketing Taiwanese films to a US market.

In recent years, Taiwanese films have moved from “international” to “localization”, which seems too narrow in terms of topics for overseas film festivals. International selectors at festival films are fully aware of each work by Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang, Tsai Ming-liang, and Ang Lee. However, after a decade, will there be another group of new directors to carry on Taiwan’s cinematic banner in the international arena? Will the next classic hit at a prestigious international film festival be plucked from the screening list of TFD, asked Peng.

After enjoying the resurgence of its domestic box office, Taiwanese filmmakers need to assume the responsibility of taking Taiwanese films to global audience by telling stories that will captivate the hearts of an international audience. After all, Taiwan’s film industry is no longer as unseasoned, with local government assistance and overseas offices standing ready to help. And given Taiwan’s stature, it still remains the best tool to demonstrate Taiwan’s soft power worldwide.

Taiwan Film Days

Taiwan Film Days focuses on the best contemporary Taiwanese cinema and provides Bay Area audiences with a unique opportunity to view bold new Taiwanese films and engage with visionary filmmakers. Marking its fifth year, San Francisco Film Society’s (SFFS) programmer Sean Uyehara said that without a doubt, this year’s Taiwan Film Days is the most eclectic yet. Included in the line-up are films already screened at celebrated international film festivals such as Cannes, Toronto and Locarno.

The photos below are a sample from the TFD over the last five years. This year’s festival has relocated to the Vogue Theater in the Marina District. Despite the new location, the festival has grown and has proved to be the best TFD yet.


The 5th Taiwan Film Days at the Vogue Theater in San Francisco (November 2013)


Fung Kai (left), director of Din Tao, takes questions from the audience. SFFS’s programmer Sean Uyehara at his right (October 2012)


TECO chief, Bruce Fuh (center), talks to Ted Hope (left), then executive director of SFFS, and Amanda Todd, SFFS’s development manager at the TFD reception (October 2012)


Tsao Jui-yuan (right), director of Joyful Reunion, is greeted by the audience (October 2012)


Manfred Peng, TECO’s press director (right), stands with Wang Chi-tsai (director of Formosa Mambo) (middle) and Huang Hsin-yao (director of Taivalu) (October 2011)


Long lines for TFD in front of New People Cinema in San Francisco (October 2011)


More long lines for TFD in front of New People Cinema (October 2011)

Taiwanese filmmakers share experiences with Bay Area audience

This year’s Taiwan Film Days was held at the New People Theater in San Francisco’s Japantown from October 12 to 14. The movies included classic Taiwanese feature films such as A Brighter Summer Day and six new blockbusters. Directors and special guests included Peng Kai-li, the widow of Edward Yang who directed A Brighter Summer Day, Fung Kai who directed Din Tao, and Tsao Jui-yuan, the director of Joyful Reunion. Each stayed to answer questions after their respective film.

During the Q&A session after Joyful Reunion, an audience member expressed her thanks to the organizers for bringing so many good Taiwanese films each year to the Bay Area so that she could better understand Taiwan.

This is the fourth Taiwan Film Days sponsored by the San Francisco Film Society (SFFS) in conjunction with the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) in San Francisco. With the exception of A Brighter Summer Day, SFFS selected the six films from a semi-final pool of 30 newly-released Taiwanese films.

Fung Kai, director of Din Tao, the opening movie in the film festival, told the audience, “I shot TV programs for more than 20 years and could produce any TV drama with my eyes closed. This is the first time I have tried to make a movie. I feel blessed to win Taiwan’s box office champion this year.” He pointed out, “Din Tao is about the culture of Taiwan’s most grassroots temple fairs, but can still win the appreciation of an American audience in the Bay Area. Vivid story telling is the most important aspect in a movie. It goes beyond the barriers of cultural differences,” he said.

The Chinese title of Joyful Reunion is the same as Ang Lee’s famous Eat Drink Men Women (1994). Tsao Jui-yuan said he had no intention of competing with Lee, but wanted to tell the story of another generation via Joyful Reunion. Tsao pointed out that Lee’s movie is about gourmet food, relationships between man, woman, their families, while “simplicity” is the main theme running through Tsao’s film about vegetarianism, ecology, and the conceptual communication of love.

Peng Kai-li talked about her deceased husband Edward Yang, who directed A Brighter Summer Day, saying that Yang was a computer engineer before switching to a career in film. Yang’s directing skills were deeply influenced by his engineering background, telling a story in a neat and systematic way. Peng also mentioned that the main character in A Brighter Summer Day was drawn from Yang’s own high school experience.

Other films screened at the 4th Taiwan Film Days included Jump! Ashin, Days We Stared at the Sun, Ye Zai and Blowfish.

Third Prince God, from temple fairs to international stage

Just as sports teams have mascots, so do countries. In Japan, Momotaro, a popular figure derived from folklore represents the national spirit, while Uncle Sam is often associated with the United States. In Taiwan, Nezha the Third Prince (san tai tse) has become a wholly Taiwanese icon. Over the past several years, Nezha’s popularity has steadily increased as a younger generation has brought this traditional temple god out onto the international stage, attracting a large fan base by adding lively music and dance routines.

During the 2009 World Games in Kaohsiung, some 20 costumed Nezha the Third Prince mascots roared into the stadium on motorcycles and proceeded to dazzle the tens of thousands of foreign visitors during the opening ceremony. As a result, Nezha the Third Prince troupes were subsequently invited to perform at international events like the 2009 Deaflympics Taipei, Shanghai World Expo, and Taipei International Flower Expo.

Nezha’s popularity reached the American mainstream in January 2010, when Taiwan’s national airline, China Airlines, created a Nezha themed float for the Pasadena Rose Parade. They faced stiff competition from China and Mexico, but came away with first prize. Then in August that same year, the Los Angeles Dodgers invited six Nezha the Third Prince troupe members to perform to a Lady Gaga song to cheer on Taiwan-born MLB pitcher Kuo Hong-chi. And elsewhere around the globe that same month, each of the 11 members of Taiwan’s marathon team took turns wearing the heavy costumes of Nezha the Third Prince as they ran the super marathon through the Sahara Desert. They did so in order to publicize Taiwan during the week-long event.

Furthermore, this July, while receiving an audience of Taiwanese cultural performers in a cross-strait exchange program, Chinese President Hu Jintao joined in with the Nezha dancers during their performance.

Originated from India, modified in China

The Third Prince, one of the protection deities in Indian Buddhist scriptures, was originally named Nalakuvara in Sanskrit. Its Chinese name was later abbreviated to Nezha. After being incorporated into the classic novels of Journey to the West and The Creation of Gods in the Ming Dynasty, Nezha became the third son of the North King (one of the four kings of Heaven), and became known as the third prince.

Embodying the figure of a child, Nezha is considered intelligent, clever and playful. He has a strong rebellious streak, leading him to frequent fights with his austere father. As the story goes, one day Nezha fought and killed the son of the Dragon King of the East China Sea. Jade Emperor of the Heaven scolded the North King. Nezha, fearing that his parents would suffer for his actions, committed suicide to prevent his parents from being punished. Praising him for his filial piety, the Chinese people worship Nezha as a marshal or grand prince of heaven.

As such, the Third Prince god has the face of a naughty boy and . The puppet shell consists of an enlarged head and its body is about twice the size of an adult. Usually dressed in traditional Chinese theatrical costume, many of them have colorful flags on their backs, jutting out like wings. Each full-body puppet weighs about 30 pounds. When performing, individuals must wear the bulky costumes as they dance, keeping up with the music, yet still incorporating a certain rigid walk associated with Nezha.

Temple culture in Taiwan

In Taiwan, there are over 300 temples that worship Nezha. With his boy-like appearance, he is considered a god especially good for protecting children. Also given that he has Wind Fire Wheels, a special vehicle that allows him to move fast and fly, he is also sought after by professional drivers (truck, taxi, bus) for protection. They carry a small figure of Nezha in their vehicles to ensure that the roads they travel on are safe and smooth.

There are always troupe performances in front of temples at every traditional Chinese holiday and birthday celebrations for the gods. Performances include singing, dancing and martial arts shows. Mythical tales and folklores are also retold during these celebrations. Each temple stages various performances to attract more worshipers in a competition with other temples.

Directly after World War II, troupes were formed by amateur organizations, consisting of the local residents in the villages. With industrialization in late 1970s, troupe membership declined to be replaced by professional performers. Temples used to attract young dropouts and unemployed juveniles to its troupes, helping them to turn their lives around in the process.

These youthful troupes were lively and informal, departing from the temples’ old-fashioned and conservative style. As reflecting their time, these young people frequented discotheques and nightclubs, so they used elements from this world to update Nezha’s image. Until recently, these troupes had thread-like connections to the criminal world.

Nezha underwent another rebirth with the new millennium, as more young people incorporated features that they loved to this temple deity. The updated Nezha often wore sunglasses and clothing decked out in LED lights and cables. Techno music also made the atmosphere more like a rave, then a temple fair. However, it would be difficult to find the origin of the “Techno Prince” (tien yin san tai tse), since both Puzi city in Chiayi County and Beigang city in Yunlin County, southern Taiwan, lay claim to it.

Rebirth into a carnival performance

Chang Chi-yuan, chairman of the Puzi Prince Festival, said that at one temple fair in 2000, some young members of Nezha the Third Prince performers abandoned traditional gongs and drums in favor of electronic music and innovative modern dances. They were well received, so electronic music was incorporated into the performance of the Third Prince troupes at temple fairs. Chang said that since 2005, troupes have started performing outside temple fairs, branching out into year-end corporate banquets, wedding celebrations and even political campaigns.

Yu Chung-pin, president of Beigang’s Prince Fraternity Association, claims that his group was the first to bring the traditional troupe of the Third Prince into the pop culture of Taiwan. He held a press conference to announce the adoption and naming of the Techno Prince. He also created television commercials, public charity videos, and appeared on television variety shows, to promote the Third Prince boom in Taiwan.

As the opening night film at this year’s Taiwan Film Days (October 12-14, http://sffs.org/Exhibition/SF-Film-Society-Cinema/Taiwan-Film-Days.aspx), Din Tao (meaning troupe) revolves around a Nezha troupe and is called Din Tao. It focuses on the tense relationship between the president of a Third Prince troupe and his son, and serves as an analogy for the relationship between the mythical North King and his son the Third Prince.

When the troupes first began to perform to pop music at temple festivals, they were criticized by the older generations who found their performances “heinous.” However, attitudes have changed given the popularity of Nezha troupes. Yu said, “Changing the traditional performance into a carnival show can bring the performers closer to the audience to win more applause.” He estimates that there have been over a hundred Nezha the Third Prince troupes of various sizes in Taiwan, with about 20 being more well-known. Nowadays, troupe performances are considered normal activities, and are no longer connected with gangsters.

Lin Mao-hsien, professor of Taichung University of Education, said “The Third Prince troupe performing is a good example of spreading the traditional folklore by innovation.” But he also acknowledges that it is easier to change the image and style with Nezha with new clothes, music, dance and eyewear since the Third Prince is a teenage god. But it would be much more difficult to update the image of more serious and mighty adult gods.

Nezha helps increase Taiwan’s international visibility

Wu Chien-heng, a 24-year-old student from National Taipei University, has probably visited more countries than most Taiwanese diplomats. In February 2011, he traveled with a Third Prince costume decked out with a national flag in LED lights. In India, he performed shows in six cities, winning a considerable following from local residents and international tourists. Under the sponsorship of the Heavenly Temple at Beigang, Wu and his Third Prince puppet visited Egypt and Kenya to perform. In early 2012, they went to Peru, Argentina, Paraguay, in addition to participating in the Brazilian Carnival. After the trip to South America, he flew to New York on February 22 to perform at Madison Square Garden for Taiwanese-American NBA player Jeremy Lin.

During the London Olympic Games in July this year, Wu and his Third Prince puppet joined a parade of 300 overseas Taiwanese carrying Taiwan’s national flags through the streets of London. They performed street dances on the city’s famous Regent Street, where the national flags of the 206 participating countries were displayed, including the flag of the Republic of China (Taiwan). However, this flag was suddenly and unexpectedly removed and replaced by the Chinese Taipei Olympic flag, because Taiwan is not formally recognized by the United Nations (UN). Since the Republic of China on Taiwan lost its seat at the UN to China in 1971, Beijing has blocked the use of Taiwan’s official flag. During the Olympic Games and other international sporting events, Taiwanese athletes are required to compete under the name Chinese Taipei and fly the Chinese Taipei Olympic flag, which few Taiwanese recognize. Wu made an effort to return Taiwan’s official national flag to Regent Street.

As for his motivation in traveling overseas with an entourage of Third Prince puppets, Wu said, “Many people have no idea what Taiwan is. They consider us as Japanese or Koreans. Some even mistake Taiwan as Thailand.” He added “I did an internship at Disney when I was 19. The American manager asked a Chinese intern which group he wanted to join. The Chinese intern said he would join the Taiwanese because it is easy to communicate in the Chinese language. The manager said, ‘You’re kidding. The people of Taiwan should speak Thai.’”

Wu plans to travel to 60 countries with the Third Prince troupe by the end of 2013. He said he plays electronic music under the Third Prince body puppet in order to let more people know and understand Taiwan. He also encourages young people to choose their own way to show their love of Taiwan. He believes that he performs for himself, but is also a part of a story for others to share. He said those local residents and international tourists in each country would never have dreamt of meeting the Third Prince god from Taiwan during their life journey.

For more details of Wu’s travels around the world with the Third Prince troupe, please visit the following link: .

Like many in Taiwan, Wu feels frustrated with the island’s diplomatic isolation; however, his creative thinking has helped the national flag to be seen on the international arena once again. Nezha the Third Prince, a mythical teenage hero, represents a symbol of youth, bravery, agility and freedom from conventional bondage, a perfect mascot for grassroots diplomacy engaged by Wu.