From Art House to Genre Film
This is important to recognize, because the films screened at the festival are not largely independent cinema in the art house sense. The Cinefest describes its showcased content as “new and award-winning”;25 the kinds of features that it screens, however, are primarily low budget, commercial genre films that play regularly in Taiwanese cinemas, if not in British ones. In 2009, for example, the runaway Taiwanese box office hit Cape No.7 screened at the festival; in 2011, Flynn programmed Taiwanese American pop idol Wang Leehom’s directorial debut, Love in Disguise, a romantic comedy about a famous pop star who pretends to be a music conservatoire undergraduate in order to pursue an old school flame. The same is true with documentaries, where the festival has gone for mainstream successes such as Lin Yu-Hsien’s Jump, Boys! rather than more experimental work. This is not to say that the Cinefest has not programmed films by directors with Taiwanese New or post-New Wave associations—in 2010, for example, Chang Tso-chi’s How Are You, Dad? played—but these cases are the exception rather than the rule.
Why is this? Partly money and prestige. Flagship films and A-list Taiwanese directors seeking a theatrical distribution deal will eschew screening at a small-scale London film festival to avoid undercutting a potential distributor’s window. In this sense, the commercial market has an unavoidable impact on what the Cinefest does. But this does not preclude smaller independent art house programming; the emphasis on low- key commercial genre film also reflects Flynn’s own interests, and where the festival sits within his personal career trajectory. As a non-Taiwanese, he clearly feels no particular obligation to emphasize high culture when showcasing the island’s accomplishments overseas: his own personal taste—“I have a commercial bent”26—is more mainstream. Furthermore, there is clearly a degree of symbiosis between the festival and his production work. In interview, Flynn keeps these two activities discursively distinct: he emphasizes that the festival is “a cultural operation,” “a public good” that was “never really designed to become a commercial animal,” unlike his day job.27 Indeed, in saying that he is setting the festival aside temporarily to focus on his production career, the former is seen implicitly as an impediment to the latter—at least at this particular moment in time. In practice, however, these two worlds clearly overlap. Flynn conducts much of his own initial scouting for the Cinefest at the major international film festivals—Cannes, Berlin, Toronto, Hong Kong—he visits for his production work.28 He estimates that 80 percent of the films the Cinefest has screened have been negotiated through sales agents, many of whom are present at the film industry events attached to these festivals.29 While pitching for a film at a market does not always make sense, it appears that the kinds of relationships and networks that Flynn exploits as a film festival director are also in part the relationships he has established as an independent film producer. This in turn has some bearing on the Cinefest’s programming. Finally, to make the festival financially viable in the long term, he suggests that it would have to become a formal distribution channel, partnering with Asian film companies and agents as a platform to pitch their films to European and North American distributors.30 The festival in this particular iteration would therefore clearly be a complement to Flynn’s production business.