Thursday, April 16, 2020

What's holding back Taiwan entertainment media on the global stage?

Why does most Taiwanese film and media struggle outside of East and Southeast Asia, while Korean pop culture takes the world by storm?

I've been thinking a lot about this in recent years, but especially since the Korean film Parasite did so well at the Oscars. Not long after, I saw the K-pop supergroup BTS appear live on the Today show in front of thousands of young people, some of whom had camped out for two days to get a prime viewing spot in midtown Manhattan.

Why aren't Taiwanese films and musicians enjoying the types of success? After all, both countries have had very similar economic and socio-cultural periods of development, not to mention strong cultural foundations and healthy domestic media markets.

It's not a foreign language issue. After all, Parasite, Gangnam Style, and many K-pop artists have succeeded in global media markets where Korean is not spoken. Clearly, if you make great media that has cross-cultural appeal, the role of language decreases. Great media can even be quite alien and still make a big impression in foreign markets. Examples: Studio Ghibli, and foreign film telling "local" stories from Spain, Brazil, etc.  

I think one thing that holds back Taiwanese film & mainstream pop is a tendency to play it safe, and go heavy on sentimental themes, which don't play as well in the U.S., Europe, and other global markets.  

Example: "A Sun" (陽光普照, now on Netflix). The story is pretty deep, touching on coming of age themes, family strife, crime, and tragedy. It won a bunch of local and international film awards.

But the soundtrack goes heavy on the schmaltz. It's quite beautiful, but it's overpowering and I thought inappropriate at times, such as the violent scene that opens the film. 

The sentimental ballad is ubiquitous in Taiwanese pop, too. I think it's fair to say it's all too often very formulaic, in terms of the chord structure and vocal melody.

Why do this?  

It's not just because sentimental themes sell well in Taiwan, and audiences there have come to expect it. It's also a popular trope in other Chinese markets, especially the People's Republic of China, where many Taiwanese actors and musicians have found great success. 

Of course there are exceptions. Taiwanese underground music really punches above its weight, and has built a global fan base. It's not huge, but it's big enough to be known and respected in Japan, Europe, and North America. Bands like Mayday can sell out large venues when they tour here, and have found mainstream success. I am so impressed, as these guys played at the same venues as us back when both 五月天 and 廢物樂隊 were part of the underground scene in Taiwan.

Roxy Vibe Poster Taipei 1998
Taipei club poster from the late 1990s including Mayday (五月天)
But Mayday's international success is not on the same level as K-pop stars. When it comes to film, the only Taiwanese director who has made a global splash beyond the indie film circuit, I can think of is Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain among others).

I would love to see Taiwan's talented media creators take a bigger role on the global stage, but in my opinion it will require toning down the sentimental approach that plays well in Taiwan, China, and Southeast Asia.

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