The recent decision by Taiwan’s Government Information Office to revoke its subsidy for Miao Miao does not help the long-term development of the Taiwanese film industry.

Taiwan has had a tough time of it over the past few months. While the island was being battered by Typhoon Morakot, another storm was brewing in its local film industry which highlights that its political position is just as precarious as its geographical position in the path of typhoons sweeping off the East China Sea.

“It would be a shame if the Taiwan film industry fails to realise its potential because of politics or quibbles about the nationality of certain films”

At the centre of the film industry maelstrom was a film called Miao Miao, directed by Taiwanese film-maker Cheng Hsiao-tse and starring a Taiwanese cast, but produced by the Taiwan branch of a Hong Kong company, Jet Tone Films, with backing from Taiwan’s Government Information Office (GIO).

The film was having a fairly conventional life for a small arthouse title until July when Jet Tone pulled it from the Melbourne International Film Festival (Miff), shortly after three mainland Chinese films were withdrawn in protest of the festival’s screening of documentary The 10 Conditions Of Love about Uighur activist Rebiya Kadeer.

Although Rachel Chen, who heads Jet Tone’s Taiwan branch, claims the film was only pulled because Miff was becoming overly politicised, the move sparked howls of protest from Taiwanese opposition legislators who said it gave the impression that Taiwan supported Beijing’s repression of the Uighurs.

Not long after, the GIO claimed that Jet Tone had presented the film as a Hong Kong rather than Taiwanese production when it submitted Miao Miao to Miff, which contravened the basic requirements of receiving the grant. It announced it was taking back its $122,000 (nt$4m) subsidy, around 13% of the film’s budget, and banning Jet Tone from applying for funding for a further three years. 

So in one fell swoop, Miao Miao went from being a small teenage romance with lesbian undertones to being branded by legislators as a “phony Taiwanese film”. But the real victim here could be the future development of the Taiwanese film industry, which unlike many of its Asian neighbours, still struggles to compete against Hollywood blockbusters.

The GIO was undoubtedly under immense political pressure to revoke the grant, but the punishment seems unduly harsh and at odds with the government body’s recent push to promote the local industry and attract foreign productions to Taiwan. The two aims go hand-in-hand, as other territories have proved that foreign capital and experience can be a boost to local film-makers. But revoking subsidies does not send the right message to potential overseas partners.

Taiwan has a lot going for it as a film-making centre: diverse locations, decent infrastructure, a large talent pool of actors and directors and a new generation of commercially minded producers. But it doesn’t have a large market, many sales agents or a huge amount of international expertise.

Hong Kong companies, such as Jet Tone, Filmko and Mei Ah, claim they’re in Taiwan for the talent and because it gives them the artistic freedom that they don’t have on the mainland — hence a rash of gay-themed love stories. Cynics would say they’re there for the subsidies, but they do appear to have identified and nurtured a number of Taiwanese film-makers. And if they’re really there for the money, there’s much more of that sloshing around on the mainland. Indeed, Taiwan could benefit from the Hong Kong film industry’s commercial and international savvy.

It would be a shame if the Taiwan film industry fails to realise its potential because of politics or quibbles about the nationality of certain films. What’s more important is that Taiwanese film-makers get the chance to present their own stories — which are markedly different from those of film-makers on the mainland — to audiences around the world and not just in a handful of film festivals. Only a vibrant local film industry, that collaborates with its neighbours and the wider world, is capable of achieving that.