A sunny afternoon in a high school classroom. A phone call wakes Ya Zhen from her nap. It is from the temple, asking her to rush back to deal with an emergency – a man possessed by a spirit.
HBO Asia’s latest original series The Teenage Psychic – based on a true story – features a 16-year-old girl chosen to work in a temple because of her ability to see and communicate with spirits. The series follows her struggles in balancing the pressures of her teenage life with demands from the spiritual world.
Filmed entirely in Taiwan with an all-Taiwanese cast, The Teenage Psychic is HBO Asia’s first Chinese-language original series. It was jointly developed by HBO Asia, Taiwan’s Public Television Service (PTS) and the Singaporean production company InFocus Asia (IFA).
For Chen Ho-yu, the show’s writer and director, the contrast between the spirit and everyday worlds is a perennial fascination. He tells Asia Times: “In the religious world, truth and lies exist simultaneously. This double-sided nature is conflicted and very attractive at the same time.”
The Teenage Psychic was adapted from Chen’s 30-minute short film The Busy Young Psychic. After it won the award for best short film at the Taipei Film Festival in 2013, a number of investors became interested in adapting it into a feature length film.
“I think this project is meaningful in a way that Taiwanese filmmakers have rarely had the chance to collaborate with international partners,” Chen says.
“Some people suggested [pursuing the mainland] Chinese market. But if we are really heading towards that direction, the temple culture and religious elements that serve as the film’s backbone will most likely be sacrificed, as these themes are completely banned in China.”
Jessie Shih, International Department Director of PTS, took The Busy Young Psychic to a conference for non-profit public television program-makers in Finland, in 2014. There, it started to attract significant funding attention.
“Jessie and PTS plays a very vital role. Without them, the collaboration with HBO Asia would never have been possible,” Chen says.
PTS has been developing international links since around 2005, when it started selling broadcast rights to Taiwanese films in other countries. In recent years, it has also been producing original content with international partners, including IFA. “It’s IFA who pulled the strings and introduced us to HBO Asia,” Chen says.
HBO Asia proposed developing The Busy Young Psychic into a six-part mini series focused on the teenage girl’s double life. This time, Chen said yes.
“I hoped by collaborating with HBO Asia, we could open a window for local talents to be seen, and show the world that we are capable of creating good content,” he says.
The local industry in Taiwan has long been facing competition from mainland Chinese, Japanese and Korean dramas, he says. Long working hours and low government support are also pushing young talents away from joining the industry. “If the Teenage Psychic brought confidence to investors, maybe more people will invest in Taiwanese drama in the future,” he says.
Temples: the ideal stage
“Temples are the center of Taiwan’s Taoist culture,” says Chen. “They accommodate all kinds of people and desires, and that’s why they are the ideal stage for stories to take place. “[Teenage Psychic] is pretty similar to Japan’s drama series Midnight Diner – people come around wanting to solve their worries.”
The Teenage Psychic is currently screening across 23 countries on HBO, with subtitles in English, and has enjoyed great popularity since debuting earlier this year.
In Singapore, the first episode was the most-watched show across all of StarHub’s English movie channels, and had higher ratings than any HBO Asia original series premiere to date.
To reach audiences with varying cultural backgrounds, Chen says the trick is to move people through characters and storyline. “The Teenage Psychic is a story about growing up, and this is a universal subject that everyone can relate to,” he says.
In making television that connects with people, he adds, the motivations of those involved are all-important.
“Most content creators are constantly looking for content that audiences might like and will pay for. But instead of following the trend, we should be walking ahead of our audiences,” Chen says. “Invest time and effort into telling a good story, not thinking of becoming famous or breaking into a certain market.”
He adds: “It all comes back to this question: What is the thing that touched you at the very beginning? Stick to that, and the rest will naturally unfold.”