Taiwan’s small but creative movie industry has been experiencing something of a renaissance in recent years. This selection – mostly recent films – should help you get under the skin of the island’s dynamic and complex culture. Aficionados should also check out the movies of two Taiwan legends: Hou Hsaio-Hsien and Tsai Ming-liang.
Groundbreaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien was the first to allude to the 2-28 Incident in City of Sadness (1989); I’d also recommend Puppet Master (1993) and Three Times (2005). Tsai Ming-liang, meanwhile, is also highly acclaimed, but his stylized movies are slow-moving and can be tough to get into – Vive l’Amour (1994) is one of his best.
1 Eat Drink Man Woman (1994)
The most famous Taiwanese director is undoubtedly Ang Lee, but long before Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hulk and Life of Pi he made his name with a string of budget hits, including The Wedding Banquet (1993), set in New York. This equally entertaining family drama is set in Taipei, and is a mouth-watering introduction to Chinese cuisine: handmade dumplings, bubbling woks, gutting fish, manic vegetable chopping, giant steamers, inflating ducks, it’s all there. Real locations include the palatial Grand Hotel anyoutd Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall Park.
2 Yi Yi (2000)
This three-hour epic by Edward Yang charts a troubled year in the life of a middle-class Taipei family. Ok, it’s long, but it manages to depict virtually the entire range of human experience. An emotional rollercoaster.
3 Formula 17 (2004)
Chen Yin-jung scored a big hit with this frank and humorous exploration of gay life in Taipei, starring Tony Yang as a naive seventeen-year-old in the big city. The plot is fairly conventional, but with the obvious twist that it’s all about men: boy wants boy, boy gets boy, boy loses boy, boy regains boy. The movie is still an artful reflection of middle-class, teenage, urban lifestyles in Taipei, utilizing locations such as Warner Village, Ximending and especially Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall.
4 Cape No. 7 (2008)
The movie credited with the revival of Taiwanese cinema is a gripping romantic comedy, blending historic and contemporary plots and touching upon Taiwan’s complex relationship with Japan (the main plot revolves around undelivered love letters, written when the Japanese were expelled from Taiwan at the end of World War II). Filmed in and around the southern city of Hengchun, and on the gorgeous beaches of Kenting – the rock concert scenes recall the Spring Scream festival.
5 Prince of Tears (2009)
The most recent movie set during the tragic “White Terror”, the period of martial law when Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang government brutally suppressed any opposition. Filmed on location, it’s a gorgeously crafted film, accurately recreating the sights and sounds of 1950s rural Taiwan (the plot focuses on daily life in a remote Taiwanese village).
6 Monga (2010)
A gangster film set in 1980s Taipei Wanhua district, jam-packed with action and brilliantly evoking the streets, gangs and fashions of the decade – the Longshan and Qingshui Temple scenes and Triad rituals are especially realistic. Brawls in Huaxi Street Night Market, gruesome choppings and a liberal dose of prostitution – it’s the seedy, violent side of Taipei that foreigners (hopefully) never experience in real life.
7 Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale (2011)
Simply stunning. An epic portrayal of the oft forgotten Wushe Incident in central Taiwan in 1930, when members of the Sediq – one of Taiwan’s ‘aboriginal’ tribes – rebelled against the Japanese. The battle scenes are grimly realistic – the movie must contain the highest number of beheadings ever. Essential viewing, not least because it’s one of few movies to portray aboriginal people in an accurate way. It’s also beautifully shot on location throughout the lush, mountainous hinterland of Taiwan. No wonder the movie led to a spike in tourism.
8 You Are the Apple of My Eye (2011)
A heart-warming – but certainly not sentimental or syrupy – teenage romance primarily set in the 1990s, based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Taiwanese author Giddens Ko. Packed full of teenage angst and high-school antics set amongst the classrooms of provincial Taiwan, it was filmed almost entirely on location in Changhua County and at Ching Cheng High School, which Giddens attended.
9 Bang Bang Formosa (2012)
This is a crazy, colourful romp through contemporary Taiwan. Retirees on tour bus excursions, “betel nut gangs”, a shrimp fishing club, stinky tofu and the Taiwanese penchant for wearing Hawaiian shirts are all ruthlessly skewered for laughs. The main plot – a posh Shanghainese girl travelling to Taiwan is kidnapped – also highlights the boom in mainland Chinese tourism to the island, only permitted since 2008.
10 Din Tao: Leader of the Parade (2012)
Traditional Chinese music is big in Taiwan, and this movie – a poignant tale of a young man reconciling with his father – was inspired by the real-life Chio-Tian Folk Drums and Arts Group. This is Taiwan at its most vibrant and spiritual – the troupe mostly comprises kids down on their luck, gradually transformed by the music, the Taoist rituals and the boisterous parades. Filmed on location at Chio-Tian’s temple outside Taichung and other sites in the city; you’ll also get to see temples in Donggang, the Southern Cross-Island Highway and the Tropic of Cancer Monument in Fengbin. Unusually, most of the dialogue is in Taiwanese (Hokkien), a language you’ll hear a lot more than Mandarin in the south of Taiwan.
Stephen Keeling is the co-author of the Rough Guide to Taiwan.