Turner Asia goes straight for the heart

Turner Asia Pacific heads into summer with a major bet on original Mandarin drama co-production, a punt on a multi-layered story about love, life & death straddling the real and the supernatural, and all rights across most of Asia and the U.S. for new Taiwan show, The Haunted Heart

Turner Asia’s most significant drama series co-production, The Haunted Heart, wrapped its five-month shoot in early April and opened a new era of original production activities for the WarnerMedia-owned Asian network. 

Budget details have not been disclosed, but with that amount of CGI, a five-month shoot, and some top talent, the prize-winning script could not have been cheap to bring to screen. Maybe three times the average Taiwan drama? So, basically, a lot.  

What’s the story that drew in Turner Asia-Pacific general entertainment vice president, Marianne Lee (and everyone else who had to sign off on the first of its kind co-pro for the Southeast Asia team)? 

Answer: A hybrid action-fantasy-romance set between reality and video games, straddling the now and the ever-after, with young good-looking stars... and ghosts.  

The 30-episode series, shot over five months in Taiwan and scheduled for a mid-2019 release, stars Nini Ou-yang as Xiaoling Wei, a young video-games tester who, because of her incredible brain power, has the ability to communicate with ghosts. But she’s lonely, sees a therapist every week, and generally ignores her visions. Until one day, in a moment of weakness, she helps a Qing Dynasty apparition, setting off a chain of events that leads to the death of her real-world boss, played by Bryan Chang. Just when she thought life couldn’t get any worse, she is now haunted by a whining ancient spirit as well as the headstrong ghost of her boss, who never believed in ghosts until he became one. 

At its heart, says director and co-writer Li-ju Xie (The Player, Channel X), the series is a story about the meaning of life and death.

The Haunted Heart emerged from multiple conversations with a friend who worked in a video game company and was inspired by an autobiography of a psychic, Xie says. “We had this idea for a story that combines reincarnation and video games”, beginning with a girl who sees spirits and works in a video game company, and a what-if question: “What if reincarnation is true and life is just like a video game?”.  

“When you launch a video game, you always have to debug to make the programme run smoothly,” she adds. The spirits in Xiaoling’s life are akin to the bugs, and the parallel efforts to debug both in life and at work, in reality and in virtual reality, runs through the story.

Turner’s Lee says the script stood way above regular Taiwanese idol drama. “It has an unusual amount of depth to it and relatable themes that will clearly appeal to a wide audience demo. The storyline, which mixes life, death and the supernatural, as well as reality and virtual reality, is something that is going to put it above most rom-coms,” she says. Plus, even with its depth, “it’s still going to be easy to watch, with all the qualities of a good rom-com – a good-looking cast and a rags-to-riches tale – but also with real heart,” she adds.

The decision was made easier with the cast and crew already attached, including Xie, and Bryan Chang, who starred in 2018 box-office hit, More Than Blue. The Haunted Heart is produced by Xie’s production house, Phenomena, with Jiun-An Chen as producer. The co-production deal gives Turner all syndication/distribution rights across most of Asia and the U.S. 

Although the current version of The Haunted Heart is new, the original 13-episode version has been around for more than seven years, ever since it won first prize in a competition run by Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture. It wasn’t made at the time because of the high cost of CGI involved in creating the ghosts and the video games. Back then, Xie was working for Taiwanese powerhouse, Sanlih Entertainment, on shows such as  The Player, In a Good Way, which was nominated for numerous Golden Bell Awards, and detective thriller Channel X, which has been sold across the region, including Japan. She left Sanlih in 2015, setting up her own shop, Phenomena, and working with Eastern Broadcasting Company’s ETTV platform.   

The 2018/2019 version of The Haunted Heart, Phenomena’s first project, involved reworking the script and story line to make it eligible for government production funding, which then enabled her to go to market to raise the balance of the production budget. 

The original 13x60-minute episodes were reworked into 20 episodes of 90 minutes for the Taiwanese market and 30 episodes of 60 minutes for Turner to take to the world. Characters were expanded, story lines added, Bryan Chang’s character was given a brother, the trip to Japan became a more solid part of the story, and some of the supernatural elements adjusted to, for instance, boost commercial potential in mainland China, which has restrictions on ghostly stories.  

But the key life-and-death questions and themes are unchanged, laced with love, laughter, romance and entertainment, a commercial eye and a feel-good element. Xie says the biggest challenge in bringing The Haunted Heart to life was delivering a profound message simply and in an entertaining way.

Having studied filmmaking in London after her philosophy/psychology studies, Xie thinks film is every-person’s therapy. “I studied psychology but I didn’t want to be a counsellor. Not everyone can go and see a therapist when they are depressed, but everyone can watch a film or TV. That’s what I was thinking when I went into movie/TV production.”   

Crafting stories with proper arcs and character development, with set ups and payoffs, conflict and change is also important for her, she says, resisting pressure (and current trends) to adjust storylines and revise the plot after the show goes to air. If there is any upside to changing story lines in response to sample audience behaviour, there’s a deep downside for quality stories that, by their nature, are crafted from beginning to end before filming starts.  

  “What’s interesting to me about the story is the journey from the beginning to end,” Xie says. Although it’s difficult, “if you don’t plan ahead it’s always very sloppy and I don’t like it”.

Five people were involved in writing the final version of The Haunted Heart, including Yun-Chi Hsu (My So-Called Love) and a writer from Mainland China who moved to Taipei for six months to work on the project. 

Xie writes, directs and produces with equal passion. Which does she prefer? “Maybe writing. And directing. And producing. I don’t know. I think being a director is good for me because otherwise I  stay at home for too long. Being a director I can go to different places in Taiwan to film. I can see the beauty of Taiwan.”

One of the biggest challenges facing Taiwan’s production industry is the talent drain to Mainland China, where production is thriving, budgets have soared, and the lure of higher pay cheques is irresistible for many. Netflix and Amazon haven’t made the difference to the local production industry In Taiwan as they have in other markets, such as Korea – yet. 

Audience fragmentation and the shift online has created another headache for storytellers. Against this backdrop, Xie asks: “Where is the crowd? They’re so spread out. It’s hard to make them pay attention to you”. She’s clearly hoping that video games, a few ghosts and a little love will do the trick.  

Published in ContentAsia print+online magazine for APOS 2019