Though it saw a flare-up in local cases during early summer, Taiwan remained relatively COVID-free during 2021 compared even to East Asian neighbors like Korea and Japan. As such, Taiwan’s cinematic industry continued to churn out theatrical releases throughout 2021.
Given this, you might wonder: what were the Best Taiwanese Movies of 2021?
In a special collaboration, the editors of New Bloom and Cinema Escapist have come up with this list of 2021’s top 10 Taiwanese films. We chose these 10 Taiwanese movies based on their narrative innovation, production quality, and societal significance. Our selections include both indie and blockbuster films across genres like horror, romance, drama, comedy, documentary, and more. When available, we’ve also included links to stream films on platforms like Netflix.
Let’s take a look through 2021’s best Taiwanese movies!
10. GATAO – The Last Stray
Chinese Title: 角頭－浪流連 | Director: Ray Jiang | Starring: Chang Tsai-hsing, Cheng Jen-shuo, Nikki Hsieh | Genre: Gangster, Drama
GATAO – The Last Stray is a prequel to the other two films in the GATAO trilogy of Taiwanese gangster movies, following supporting character Ah-Qing in his early days. As with other films of the genre, GATAO romanticizes the lives of Taiwanese gangsters. It depicts Ah-Qing and his comrades as old-fashioned enforcers of local justice, who are up against newer gangsters that have no moral qualms with selling drugs and other flagrantly illegal actions.
In particular, GATAO – The Last Stray follows Ah-Qing’s doomed relationship with headstrong photographer Xiao Qi, who he meets at a wedding. Though the two get off to a rocky start, they eventually fall in love despite their opposing lifestyles. However, Ah-Qing’s high-risk antics may be too much for Xiao Qi.
GATAO is a capable production, though its plot and setting are not especially original. It’s still entertaining and, even if it can be somewhat cliched, its production values provide some redemption. GATAO has a somewhat similar story to Man in Love (see later on this list)—which points to the shared tropes between both movies. The latter is more stylized, better acted, and ultimately more original though.
Chinese Title: 花咲了那女孩 | Directors: Chen Hung-i, Muni Wei | Starring: Aggie Hsieh, Puff Kuo | Genres: LGBTQ, Comedy, Romance
Especially after 2019’s legalization of same-sex marriage, Taiwan has become a relatively popular hub for LGBTQ+ narratives in East Asia. As We Like It is a notable instance of this trend, one that offers a unique gender-bending combination of Shakespeare and Taiwanese opera.
This 2021 Taiwanese film is a retelling of Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy As You Like It. The movie centers on a young woman named Rosalind, who must look for her missing father. In the process, she ends up disguising herself as a man named Roosevelt—and falling in love with another man named Orlando.
Besides being delightfully whimsical, As We Like It also takes inspiration from the traditions of Taiwanese opera—where it’s not actually that strange for women to play men. The movie is an entertaining reminder of the fluidity and cultural specificity of gender roles, and offers an exciting vision of a progressive future for Taiwan.
Chinese Title: 當男人戀愛時 | Director: Yin Chen-hao | Starring: Roy Chiu, Ann Hsu | Genre: Romance, Comedy
A remake of a South Korean film by the same name,Man in Love follows small-time gangster Ah-Cheng, a debt collector with a heart of gold. Ah-Cheng’s life of petty crime takes a sudden turn when he encounters and instantly falls for Hao Ting, a woman who went into debt to pay the medical bills for her dying father.
Much of the film’s comedy follows from Ah-Cheng’s awkward attempts to woo the disinterested Hao Ting. When Ah-Cheng eventually succeeds, he then encounters the difficulties of trying to leave the gangster life, and other related obstacles to living happily ever after with Hao Ting.
Though the film does not break any new ground for romantic comedies, it at the very least hits all the necessary beats. Roy Chiu and Ann Hsu are at the top of their game playing Ah-Cheng and Hao Ting. Arguably, it is their strong performances that made what could otherwise have been a hamstrung film stand out. The film’s costumes and sets are another accomplishment.
Chinese Title: 哭悲 | Director: Rob Jabbaz | Starring: Berant Zhu, Regina Lei, Wang Tzu-chiang | Genres: Horror, Zombie
COVID-19 may not have ravaged Taiwan as severely as other countries, but that doesn’t mean Taiwan went without pandemic-themed movies during 2021. Just look at The Sadness, a movie that depicts the travails of a couple living in Taiwan during a viral outbreak that turns people into ultraviolet zombies.
If you’re a fan of gory horror flicks, you’ll enjoy The Sadness. The film splatters blood and guts with a level of ambition and technical prowess that few other Taiwanese movies can match. Local commentators have also praised The Sadness’ authentic depiction of daily life in Taiwan, with scenes occuring in settings like the Taipei MRT and local breakfast shops.
Chinese Title: 青春弒戀 | Director: Ho Wi-Ding | Starring: Austin Lin, Moon Lee, Annie Chen, JC Lin | Genres: Drama, Tragedy
If you’re a stalwart fan of Taiwanese cinema, you might recognize the name Terrorizers. This 2021 Taiwanese film shares an English title with noted auteur Edward Yang’s 1986 classic Terrorizers, though the two have different Mandarin names.
The name overlap here is likely intentional. Like its 1986 namesake, the 2021 Terrorizers also focuses on the coincidental connections between three cohorts of lonely young people in Taipei.
Local commentators in Taiwan praised the 2021 Terrorizers for having quality acting, and taking a bold and incisive look into the dark psyches of troubled youths. The film opened 2021’s Golden Horse Awards, and screened at both the Tokyo and Toronto International Film Festivals during 2021. Though it might not be as epic as Edward Yang’s original, Terrorizers is one of 2021’s more stirring Taiwanese movies.
5. City of Lost Things
Chinese Title: 廢棄之城 | Director: Yee Chih-yen | Starring: Joseph Chan, Kwai Lun-mei, River Huang | Genre: Animation
City of Lost Things, a 3D animated film, is not the flashiest affair, relying on relatively simple visual elements and character designs. Nevertheless, the movie makes do with what it has. The film’s strong script and well-grounded story ultimately make it highly dynamic.
This animated film follows Leaf, a boy who views himself as a social outcast, something like the human refuse of society. Leaf drifts into a fantastical city of living garbage, where everything from plastic bags to refrigerators or even temple palanquins have formed a society of their own. Leaf seems to have finally found a place where he feels that he belongs, except for that his newfound friends are trying to escape the city to return to the human world.
It would be easy to pass over City of Lost Things. However, its engaging story and characters make it more than the sum of its parts. The film does not stick the landing, seemingly going on longer than it needs to and venturing into some rather odd–though unforgettable–territory. At the same time, the film is one of the standouts of Taiwanese animation in past years.
Green Jail documents the final years of Hashima Yoshiko, the last Taiwanese resident of Iriomote Island in Okinawa. Iriomote Island was once home to Taiwanese miners during the Japanese colonial period, but after the mine’s closure, Hashima’s family was the last Taiwanese family that stayed.
In this sense, Green Jail can be understood as one of the many contemporary Taiwanese documentaries that make the Japanese colonial period its focus. However, while some of these documentaries romanticize Japanese colonialism, Green Jail takes an unflinching look at how Hashima’s family was ostracized in both Taiwan and Japan. Likewise, the documentary shows the harshness of life for Taiwanese miners under the Japanese, with seven out of ten miners addicted to opium.
Besides its engaging topic, the documentary has strong technical merits. A combination of interviews with Hashima, historical photos, and historical reenactments are used as parts of the film. Hashima’s story is told in a quiet manner, but the documentary is a powerful one.
Chinese Title: 緝魂 | Director: Cheng Wei-hao | Starring: Chang Chen, Janine Chang, Sun Anke, Christopher Lee | Genre: Sci-fi, Mystery
The Soul follows prosecutor Liang Wen-chao’s investigation of the murder of wealthy businessman Wang Shicong. Wang works with his colleague and wife Bao, which becomes complicated by the fact that the couple is expecting a child and Liang has cancer.
What could simply be another crime whodunit, however, proves a cut above average with its blending of science fiction and supernatural elements, and its distinctive setting in a near-future Taipei. The setting proves a triumph. The Soul shows a Taipei that is not so distant from the present as to be unrecognizable, but in which digital technology is increasingly ubiquitous. Likewise, the film initially makes it unclear as to whether its central mystery has supernatural elements, introducing horror aesthetics into its science fiction city.
Chang Chen gives a strong performance as Liang, with a convincing portrayal of a man with cancer. In the last evaluation, The Soul is not a remarkable film, in that it has a weak ending, and the plot twists are sometimes unconvincing. Nevertheless, it is above average for its genre.
Chinese Title: 美國女孩 | Director: Fiona Feng-i Roan | Starring: Caitlin Fang, Kaiser Chuang, Kimi Hsia | Genres: Drama, Family
Readers in the Taiwanese diaspora may especially appreciate American Girl. This film centers around a 13 year-old girl named Fen who moves from Los Angeles to Taiwan when her mother gets breast cancer.
American Girl chronicles the challenges that Fen experiences upon moving back to Taiwan. She has to establish herself in a new school, reconnect with her estranged father, and deal with the outbreak of SARS—all the while juggling an already-fraught relationship with her mother.
Taiwanese audiences and critics have heaped praise upon American Girl, saying that it’s easy to see their own lives and families reflected in the film, even if they’re not members of the diaspora themselves. Some critics have compared it positively with other vaunted family dramas like America’s Lady Bird and Singapore’s Ilo Ilo. It’s rare to see a depiction of Taiwanese diaspora family dynamics that’s as intricate and resonant to Taiwanese as American Girl—and that’s why the film is so high on our list.
1. The Falls
Chinese Title: 瀑布 | Director: Chung Mong-hong | Starring: Alyssa Chia, Gingle Wang | Genres: Drama, Family
Taiwanese director Chung Mong-hong last topped our list of best Taiwanese movies in 2019 with A Sun. Now he’s back again in 2021 with The Falls.
Similar to American Girl, The Falls focuses on a mother-daughter relationship. The film follows a divorced woman named Pin-wen, who lives with her teenage daughter Xiao Jing. When the two are forced to quarantine at home due to COVID-19, their already fraught relationship starts spiraling out of control.
The Falls enjoyed a significant amount of international visibility during 2021. It debuted at the Venice International Film Festival, screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, got selected as Taiwan’s submission to the 2022 Oscars, and won big at 2021’s Golden Horse Awards. Frankly, it was hard to choose between The Falls and American Girl for #1, but The Falls’ timeliness amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and its critical acclaim ultimately tipped the balance ever-so-slightly in its favor.