At Cinema Escapist, Taiwanese cinema is near and dear to our hearts. That’s why we’ve put together this list of the Best Taiwanese Movies of 2019.
While Taiwan doesn’t make that many movies, it’s made significant strides in 2019. Whereas in previous years we had difficulty compiling a Taiwan-focused list or had to include fewer films, we’re pleased to highlight 10 top Taiwanese movies from 2019.
These Taiwanese films stretch across diverse genres like sports, romance, horror, drama, and action; they also represent both indie and mainstream offerings. Many movies on this list show that Taiwanese filmmakers have made great progress in telling unique stories that you can’t find in other Chinese-speaking countries.
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10. The Last Thieves
Original Title: 聖人大盜 | Director: Jack Hsu | Starring: Megan Lai, Yen Tsao, Joanne Tseng, Eric Tsang | Genre: Drama, Thriller
Billed as a “blockchain corporate warfare” movie, The Last Thieves has the most unique concept of any film on this list. The movie centers on a young entrepreneur named Yin Tzu-hsiang, who aspires to make the world a more equitable place through decentralized blockchain technology (think Bitcoin). Unable to get investors for his blockchain startup, Yin partners with a ruthless capitalist named Hsu Ching—and must balance his idealism with commercial realities.
Cryptocurrencies and blockchain aren’t new to Asian cinema (see Vietnam’s Bitcoin Heist). However, The Last Thieves wholeheartedly embraces the technology both within its plot and outside. Director Jack Hsu actually created his own blockchain startup called SELF TOKEN in tandem with the film’s release, and allowed moviegoers to pay for tickets with SELF’s cryptocurrency.
While The Last Thieves didn’t do so well at the box office and had somewhat muddled storytelling, it’s still worth highlighting for pushing the boundaries of Taiwanese cinema. It’s the first Taiwanese film to emulate Hollywood “corporate warfare” flicks like Wall Street, and also the first to offer pointed social commentary on millennial malaise around lack of economic opportunity.
9. Stand By Me
Original Title: 陪你很久很久 | Director: Lai Meng-jie | Starring: Mason Lee, Ivy Shao, Tsai Jui-hsueh | Genre: Romance, Comedy
Romances are a staple genre for Taiwanese cinema, though their quality can vary. Stand By Me is one of Taiwan’s less cringeworthy romances of recent memory, and tries to offer something slightly different.
The film stars Mason Lee (son of Ang Lee) as our protagonist, Jiu-bing. A college student who also works as a running pacemaker, Jiu-bing has loved his female friend Bo-he since childhood. However, he’s never confessed his feelings for her, and it’s Bo-he who has to take care of him instead of the other way around (as traditional in Asian romances with friendzone situations). After his dorm explodes (seriously), Jiu-bing moves into a off-campus apartment with a female roommate named Xia-tian. A love triangle develops, as Xia-tian helps Jiu-tian work up the courage to confess to Bo-he, but starts developing feelings for him in the process.
Besides the somewhat different friendzone dynamic with Bo-he and Jiu-bing, Stand By Me generally sticks to familiar Taiwanese romcom tropes. Besides the love triangle, there’s obligatory quirky humor and encounters with gangsters. Nevertheless, the movie has better acting than other recent Taiwanese romcoms, and avoids excessively saccharine melodrama.
8. It’s a Mad Mad Mad Show
Original Title: 瘋狂電視台瘋電影 | Director: Hsieh Nien-Tsu | Starring: Genie Chou, Liang Hsiu-Shen, Lim Min Chen, Liu Kuan Ting, Nadow | Genre: Comedy
In It’s a Mad Mad Mad Show, a man named Mr. Lo runs a TV station called Crazy TV. The station isn’t doing so well, and Mr. Lo wants to purposefully drive its ratings down so he can sell it to triad gangsters and pocket a kickback. To do this, he fires all of his staff save a few B-players, whom he commissions to produce the most ridiculous programming possible.
What results is a series of zany and addictingly entertaining segments that those familiar with Taiwanese pop culture will especially enjoy. For instance, there’s a parody of popular Taiwanese TV show Kangsi Coming (康熙來了), and a children’s show named after the Yakult (養樂多) drink that every East Asian kid knows. While It’s a Mad Mad Mad Show doesn’t make any direct political commentary, it’s a high-energy, eminently accessible look at what happens when greed and ratings drive media production. Given Taiwan’s reputation for media sensationalism and recent controversies over fake news, it’s a timely topic.
7. We Are Champions
Original Title: 下半場 | Director: Chang Jung-chi | Starring: Takuya Kimura, Masami Nagasawa, Fumiyo Kohinata | Genre: Crime, Mystery
With examples like Kano, Taiwanese cinema is no stranger to underdog sports movies. We Are Champions is 2019’s best entry for that genre.
The film centers on two high school-aged brothers named Hsiu-yu and Tung-hao. Both brothers love basketball and aspire to win the Taiwanese High School Basketball League championships. However, the two end up in radically different circumstances. Hsiu-yu plays for an elite school, while Tung-hao plays for a much shabbier team. The brothers must reconcile their blood bond with the fact that only one can achieve the championship dream they both pine for.
We Are Champions keeps its sentimentality toned down, and has great camerawork. Basketball fans might appreciate how director Chang Jung-chi recruited actual high school basketball players for his cast and subjected them to an intense training regimen.
6. Mayday Life
Original Title: 五月天人生無限公司 | Director: Muh Chen | Starring: Mayday, Huang Bo, Tony Leung Ka-fai | Genre: Documentary, Music, Sci-Fi
If you’re a Mandopop fan, you’ve probably heard about Mayday—one of the most popular Taiwanese bands of all time. Apparently Netflix has heard of them too, because they produced Mayday Life as part of their Asia growth strategy.
Mayday Life is a documentary that chronicles Mayday’s 20th anniversary “Life Tour,” which lasted from March 2017 to January 2019. The film aims to make viewers feel like they’re participating in the concerts, and tug at their Mayday nostalgia heartstrings.
To string various concerts and songs together, Mayday Life crafts a sci-fi framing narrative where the five Mayday band members are superheroes that must save the world from aliens. This set Mayday Life apart from many other concert tour movies: beyond sweeping stadium visuals, there’s action-packed entertainment as well.
Original Title: 返校 | Director: John Hsu | Starring: Gingle Wang, Fu Meng-po, Tseng Ching-hua | Genre: Horror, Psychological, Political
Horror flick Detention represents another “first” on this list of 2019’s best Taiwanese movies. While there are other Taiwanese horror movies, Detention is the first mainstream Taiwanese film to directly depict the island’s White Terror.
Based off a popular video game of the same name, Detention follows a high school girl named Fang Ray-shin as she wanders the haunted halls of her high school. She and a classmate encounter demonic creatures, and begin to suspect the creatures have something to do with a student book club that the authorities suppressed.
Though Detention‘s plot isn’t as well-structured as its video game source, it’s still notable for broaching political themes. As Taiwan reckons with its authoritarian history through transitional justice measures, movies like Detention help make such political conversations more accessible for regular Taiwanese.
To learn more, read our full-length review of Detention.
Original Title: 那個我最親愛的陌生人 | Director: Chang Tso-chi | Starring: Lu Hsueh-feng, Oscar Chiu, Li Meng | Genre: Drama, Family
Similar to Japan, Taiwan has a rapidly aging society. Synapses addresses this stark reality with its dementia-centered family drama. The film was selected for 2020’s Rotterdam Film Festival, and opened 2019’s Golden Horse Film Festival.
Synapses begins when an elderly man named Zhang Junxiong gets diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. As his wife Wang Feng starts shouldering the burden of his condition, his daughter also returns from a six year prison term and struggles to connect with her illegitimate son. Together, they must navigate the meanings of “family” and “home.”
With its atmospheric feel and careful cinematography, Synapses is one of the most visually pleasing films from Taiwan in 2019. Furthermore, it contains layered and subtle explorations around Taiwanese identity. Zhang is a waishengren who came to Taiwan from Guangdong in 1949; as his dementia progresses, Taiwan starts feeling foreign to him. The film also contains a meaningful blend of benshengren-accented Mandarin, waishengren-accented Mandarin, Cantonese, and Taiwanese which might pique the interest of those familiar with the politics of language in Taiwan.
3. Han Dan
Original Title: 寒單 | Director: Huang Chao-liang | Starring: George Hu, Cheng Jen-shuo, Yang Kuei-mei, Jack Kao | Genre: Drama, Coming-of-Age
One of Taiwan’s most unique traditions is the Bombing of Master Han Dan. In this ceremony, young men wearing only shorts parade around the southeastern city of Taitung atop a bamboo throne—as firecrackers explode around them. The movie Han Dan tells a coming-of-age story which incorporates the ceremony as a recurring motif.
Cheng-kun and Ming-yi are two young men growing up in Taitung. They both like a girl named Wen-hsuan, but she’s already going out with Ming-yi. In an act of jealous rage, Cheng-kun secretly injures Ming-yi with fireworks when the latter participates in the Bombing of Master Han Dan. Unfortunately, this accidentally causes Wen-hsuan’s death as well. Wracked with guilt, Cheng-kun tries to redeem himself and grows closer to Ming-yi.
Few Taiwanese films depict Taitung, much less the bombing of Master Han Dan; Han Dan does both beautifully with intricate camera work and excellent use of color. The character development across Cheng-kun and Ming-yi is also superb. The theme of redemption plays out in an action-packed but not sensational manner, leaving viewers not only entertained but also enlightened.
2. Nina Wu
Original Title: 灼人秘密 | Director: Midi Z | Starring: Wu Ke-xi, Vivian Sung, Kimi Hsia | Genre: Drama, Psychological
The film stars Wu Ke-xi as an actress named Nina Wu. Trying to launch her career, Wu encounters a Harvey Weinstein-esque executive producer and gets cast in a WWII spy romance with an explicit sex scene. As Nina throws herself into the role, her mind begins to unravel amidst repeated degradations and a creeping feeling of isolation.
Besides timely social commentary, Nina Wu has some of the best cinematography of 2019 in Taiwanese film. The film makes creative use of color and motion to convey Nina’s fractured mental state, and a chilling score from famed Taiwanese composer Lim Giong provides a fitting complement.
1. A Sun
Original Title: 陽光普照 | Director: Chung Mong-hong | Starring: Chen Yi-wen, Ko Shu-chin, Wu Chien-ho, Liu Kuan-ting | Genre: Drama, Family
Our choice for 2019’s top Taiwanese movie goes to A Sun. This family drama is the fourth film by director Chung Mong-hong—who doesn’t have as much international recognition as stalwarts like Hou Hsiao-hsien, but has a strong track record in Taiwan.
A Sun centers on the Chen family, who outwardly seem like your average working class Taiwanese. However, when younger son A-Ho commits a crime and gets put in juvenile detention, the family starts to unravel. Their worlds upended, each of the four Chen family members must rediscover themselves and contend with each others’ baggage.
Tight, suspenseful storytelling make A Sun a standout movie. It somehow fleshes out all four Chen family members to a meaningful extent, and neatly resolves even small plot details. Great acting, sprinklings of action, and captivating cinematography complete the equation. It’s no wonder A Sun won multiple Golden Horse Awards (Taiwan’s Oscars) in 2019, including for Best Director and Best Feature.
To learn more about A Sun, read our full-length review.
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In case you’re wondering, other Taiwanese movies that came out in 2019 include:
- The Ninth Precinct 《第九分局》— Trailer, Stream on Netflix
- Someone in the Clouds (真愛神出來) — Trailer
- A Fool In Love, Love Like a Fool 《傻傻爱你，傻傻爱我》— Trailer
- The Gangs, the Oscars, and the Walking Dead 《江湖無難事》— Trailer
- Dear Loneliness 《致親愛的孤獨者》— Trailer
- The Magnificent Bobita《最乖巧的殺人犯》— Trailer
- Deep Evil 《緝魔》— Trailer
- Fall in Love At First Kiss 《一吻定情》 — Trailer
- Always Miss You 《下一任》— Trailer