Your Feature-Length Guide to Cinema in Taipei

The Taipei Film Festival (台北電影節), with its spotlight on independent, alternative, and groundbreaking cinema, is one of the biggest annual movie events in the city. In 2020, the event was probably the world’s first film festival to go ahead with in-person screenings and events after the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, consistently filling the stalls with its diverse billings of local and international films. 

People can watch various local and international movies at the Taipei Film Festival, as well as participate in movie-related events. (Photo/Taipei Film Festival)

Usually movie lovers of Taipei could expect over 140 films from more than 40 countries to be screened during the two-week-festival, leading up to the glittering final awards ceremony to honor local films. But if you’re yet to get your bearings on the local cinema scene, consider this your guide to Taiwan film. In addition to the Taipei Film Festival, you will find more about the city’s movie background, and most importantly, where you should head in the city for a truly exceptional cinematic experience. (Read more: Oscars Season: 5 Hollywood-worthy Movie Locations in Taiwan)

History of Taiwan Cinema — A Teaser

Meta it may be, but the history of Taiwan cinema is in itself dramatic. Taiwan cinema was first developed by the Japanese as a colonial propaganda device. After 1945, film studios from China dominated the local film industry, particularly after many Nationalist sympathizing filmmakers relocated to Taiwan at the end of the Chinese Civil War. 

During the 1960s and 1970s, wuxia and melodrama drove the popularity of Taiwan films at home and internationally. Prominent filmmakers of this era include King Hu (胡金銓), whose wuxia epic A Touch of Zen (俠女, 1971) influenced later masterpieces like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (臥虎藏龍, 2000) by Ang Lee (李安).

The 1980s and a loss of international luster took the industry in a different direction. Struggling to compete with the rising popularity of Hong Kong cinema, Taiwanese studios like the Central Motion Picture Corporation (中央電影公司), started supporting a new generation of directors whose raw, realistic depictions of society would become known as Taiwan New Cinema (台灣新電影). Names to emerge in this period would help Taiwan find artistic prestige at home and abroad: the likes of Hou Hsiao-hsien (侯孝賢), Edward Yang (楊德昌), later Tsai Ming-liang (蔡明亮) and Ang Lee.

What to Watch First

You could fill a book, if not a series of books, listing all of the best films to come out of Taiwan. But if you’re looking to set your cinematic compass, these narrative treasures represent some of the best of the bunch, with their sometimes frank, sometimes gritty portrayals of Taipei at the close of the 20th century.   

– In Our Time (光陰的故事, 1982)

– Dir. Edward Yang (楊德昌), Chang Yi (張毅), Ko I-Chen (柯一正), Tao Te-chen (陶德辰) –

Often described as a pioneer of Taiwan New Cinema, this influential story is told across a series of four poetic vignettes, each depicting a stage of life respectively, from childhood, adolescence, the college,  through adulthood. In Our Time was at once a string of snapshots of Taiwan between the 1950s and 1980s and a turning point at which many Taiwanese filmmakers turned away from fantasy and sensationalism in favor of more realistic storylines grounded in the concrete world around them.

– Rebels of the Neon God (青少年哪吒, 1992) 

Dir. Tsai Ming-liang (蔡明亮)

Juxtaposing spiritual tradition with the roughness of 1990s Taipei, Rebels of the Neon God is the story of a troubled taxi driver’s son who drops out of cram school to track down the petty criminals who smashed the side mirror on his father’s car. The film exposes the loneliness in its young leads’ lives, as well as the alienating gap that hangs between generations.

– Millennium Mambo (千禧曼波, 2001) 

Dir. Hou Hsiao-hsien (侯孝賢) –

It’s hard to say what underpins the staying power of this neon-drenched Taipei drama. Perhaps it’s the daze-inducing trip which takes us through the city’s underbelly. Perhaps it’s the wistful narrations of its troubled lead. Either way, Hou tells the bleak story of Vicky, a young nightclub hostess, and her problematic romances with two lawless men. From its dreamy opening shot of Vicky’s unfettered stroll through a covered skywalk, Millenium Mambo pulls its audience on board for a dramatic trip told against the pulsating backdrop of Taipei’s early 2000s rave scene. 

Where to Catch a Movie in Taipei

1. Taipei Zhongshan Hall 台北市中山堂

The flagship of the Taipei Film Festival, Zhongshan Hall occupies an important place in both Taiwan cinema and the history of Taiwan in general. Built in 1936 as the Taipei City Public Auditorium (台北公會堂) by the Japanese government, it was here nine years later that the Japanese governor formally surrendered to the Republic of China, ending 50 years of colonial rule in Taiwan. For years afterward, the hall served as the reception hall for visiting heads of state, as well as several presidential inaugurations.

Screenings at Zhongshan Hall are exquisitely theatrical, being held in a grand rosewood auditorium. Neoclassical Chinese motifs frame the screen, which had to be specially designed to accommodate the hall’s unique two-story layout. Each year the festival team has to tailor its projection equipment to meet the requirements of different films to present the best viewing experience. 

⬆Many people visit Zhongshan Hall, built during the Japanese colonial period, to enjoy all different kinds of entertaining activities.

The venue will hold several showings throughout the festival, as well as its closing awards ceremony. Movies are only screened at Zhongshan Halle during the Taipei Film Festival. But even if you can’t make it there during the event, you can still learn more about its fascinating history every Saturday and Sunday, when the venue holds guided tours.

Taipei Zhongshan Hall
🏠 98, Yanping S. Rd., Zhongzheng Dist.
🕒 09:30am – 09:00pm

2. Eslite Art House 誠品電影院

Located within the tapered structure of Eslite Spectrum Songyan Store (誠品生活松菸店), arguably one of Taipei’s most beautiful shopping centers, Eslite Art House boasts an impressive selection of flicks and films, most of which have English subtitles. As an “Art House” theater, the small yet cozy cinema has its unique taste when it comes to movie selection. Art movies, local films and documentaries are some of the top choices. Expect to see a wide range of titles at the ticket booth, from independent productions to the occasional Hollywood blockbuster.

Hidden within a department store in the city center, Eslite Art House provides a comfortable space for movie lovers.  (Photo/Eslite)

Nostalgic cinephiles won’t want to miss Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings at Eslite Art House, when the theater shows classic films, usually following a specific theme or director.

Eslite Art House 誠品電影院
🏠 88, Yanchang Rd., Xinyi Dist.
🕒 11:00am – 10:00pm
*Open hours may vary due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Please consult the latest updates of each venue.

3. Nanshan Theater 湳山戲院

Just up the road from Linjiang Street Night Market (臨江街夜市), Nanshan Theater is one of Taipei’s few remaining second-run cinemas, which show films for discount prices after they leave regular movie theaters. While streaming services may have dropped the final curtain on most of Nanshan’s competitors, this unpretentious hangout maintains a local cult following, not least because on ordinary business days, the NT$140 entry allows you to watch as many movies as you like.

Nanshan Theater, one of Taipei’s few remaining second-run cinemas, shows movies at a fair price. (Photo/Taiwan Scene)
Nanshan Theater 湳山戲院
🏠 1, Ln. 24, Tonghua St., Daan Dist.
🕒 Open hours dependent on screening times 

4. Spot- Taipei Film House 光點台北(台北之家)

Spot is the kind of movie theater that tells one story on the screen and another in its architecture. A dignified American Colonial-style mansion on Zhongshan North Road, this historic theater served as the US consulate in Taipei after 1926, hosting political notables such as President Dwight Eisenhower and then Vice President Richard Nixon on their visits to the city. The building fell into disrepair after the US broke ties with Taiwan in 1979, only to be restored and reopened at the turn of the millennium as one of Taipei’s most elegant arthouse cinemas. 

Once home of the US consulate in Taipei, Spot Taipei Film House has preserved the elegance of the original retro-style building. (Photo/Spotlight Taipei Film House)

Today, Spot Taipei is a favorite hangout of discerning cinephiles. Its intimate 83-seat movie theater has a city-wide reputation for its excellent selection of international and local independent films, with six screenings daily from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Reminders of the venue’s diplomatic pedigree linger in the leather upholstery and period furnishings of the second story bar — the perfect place for a pre-show drink. Meanwhile, on sultry summer nights, its fairy-light strung garden café makes for a magical end to an evening out at the movies. 

Spot- Taipei Film House 光點台北(台北之家)
🏠 18, Sec. 2, Zhongshan N Rd., Zhongshan Dist.Cinema
🕒 11:00 am – 10:00 pm (may vary)
🕒 Spot Designs 11:00 am – 9:00 pm
🕒 Youmoutouhana Coffee 11:00 am – 10:00 pm
🕒 Youmoutouhana Coffee/Bar 11:00 am – 7:00 pm
*Open hours may vary due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Please consult the latest updates of  each venue.

Words by Seb Morgan
Photos by Taiwan Scene, Eslite, Spot Taipei Film House, Taipei Film Festival 

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