The 15 filmmakers selected to take part in the Filmmaker’s Academy at this year’s Locarno Film festival represented a map of the cinematic world. Hailing from Morocco, Malaysia, Israel, Singapore and elsewhere, these filmmakers have all directed one or more short films and are now working on getting their first feature films made.
But nationality can be reductive, as is the case with Rina Tsou. The program states she is from Taiwan, yet she also has ties to the Philippines, and her feature project is built around relations between these two countries.
When Indiewire chatted with Tsou recently at Locarno, she discussed her career trajectory and the challenges she faces putting together international projects in a country dominated by Hollywood and local feel-good productions.
How did you get involved in cinema? What’s your background?
I come from a mixed family. My father is Taiwanese and my mother is Filipino. I grew up in the Philippines from the age of two to ten, and it was always clear that we would one day go back to Taiwan. But when I got there, it turned out my parents were away from home just as often as they were in the Philippines, and it was hard fitting in at first because I didn’t know the slang, that kind of thing. We had cable, so films became my family: mostly Hollywood films, but also a lot of Hong Kong films.
Later on I started studying finance, but I hated it, so at the end of the second year I switched to a film course in another university (NTUA), and chose to focus on directing, but also did some writing and producing. My first short, “Guai Wu” was made in 2011, and that’s the one I’m showing here at Locarno. It’s quite a dark film, made about a period of my life which was very hard for personal reasons. My graduation short is also about a personal topic: the period of my life that followed my arrival in Taiwan, when I had trouble fitting in.
Now I’ve written the first draft of my first feature project, a coming-of-age project that happens in the follow-up of the Haiyan typhoon: a 21-year old Taiwanese graduate comes to volunteer in Taiwan and meets a 15-year old Filipino girl, who was the pretty little thing of her village but is now just a young teenager who has lost half of her family. There’s this perception in Taiwan that to solve your problems you have to go abroad, so that’s what the young man does. They cross paths, then at the end of the film go their own ways; they have changed, but the world has not changed for them. I’ll be working on the second draft this month.
What are conditions like in Taiwan for filmmakers in general?
It’s funny, because what is considered the Golden Age of Taiwanese cinema in the West, when it was really happening, was actually a really bad time for the industry. Audiences were bigger in the 1970s, there was a local industry. But it’s because the industry was doing badly that the directors were freer than they had been.
In 2008 there was a huge popular success, which Taiwanese people came out to see, called “Cape No. 7.” That boosted the industry, and there have been a lot of films made since then that rely on the same kind of cute, heart-warming tone, what the Taiwanese call xiao que xing, “small happiness.” These are the local box-office successes, and otherwise theaters are dominated by Hollywood films. In the middle there are also American films and Japanese films.
Art-house films are at the bottom and draw small numbers. But there are a lot of film festivals in Taiwan, and that’s where art-house films have their premieres. They then show in art-house cinemas, and as for the festivals, many of them are funded by the government or by other institutions. You won’t see any of those downtown in the shopping areas, but if you know where to look, they’re there.
What does that mean in terms of challenges for getting a film project off the ground then?
Producers expect you to have commercial or genre elements in your film, and if you’re more of an art-house filmmaker it can be harder to find funding. There is government funding which it is possible to get in Taiwan. But the committee meets once a year, and the process of reviewing applications is slow, so you’re waiting for a very long time to get an answer.
It’s impossible to get actors without money, as actors in Taiwan are still mostly box-office driven. So my strategy is instead to rely on the prestige of international film festivals and then come back to Taiwanese producers and “fight back.” I took part in the Produire au Sud workshop of the Nantes Festival des Trois Continents, which had its first edition in Taipei recently, and that was very helpful in getting us pointed in the right direction to get a project off the ground.
In the Berlinale Talents I was able to meet my Filipino producer, who will help open a lot of doors. Of course Filipino cinema is booming at the moment, but since there are so many filmmakers there at the moment, it’s actually even more cutthroat than Taiwan!
My producer’s strategy is to focus on the specificity of my project as an international one, not just involving the Philippines, but also connecting it to another Asian country, which is not as common.
And then the Locarno Filmmaker’s Academy has been good for giving filmmakers a smaller environment where there are only a few of us (Berlinale Talents is huge, for example). The filmmakers in the program have really developed a strong connection so we can exchange notes on funding and applications without feeling that we’re competing against each other.
This article is part of a series written by members of the 2015 Locarno Critics Academy, organized by Indiewire, the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Locarno Film Festival.
READ MORE: The 2015 Indiewire Locarno Bible: Every Review, Interview and News Item Posted During the Festival