At just age 33, Giddens Ko is one of Taiwan’s most successful and prolific writers and his first feature film was a dark horse that became a runaway hit.
The coming-of-age comedy-romance, “You Are the Apple of My Eye,” (2011) is based on Ko’s semi-autobiographical novel “The Girl We Chased Together in Those Years,” a best seller about his pursuit of his dream girl for many years.
Ko (Ko Chen-tung) knows about daring to dream, stumbling, trying again and doggedly pursuing dreams. He had a powerful message for students in Shanghai at the recent Harvard College Summit for Young Leaders 2013, organized by the Harvard College Association for US-China Relations.
“No matter when and where, do not lose the courage to take on adventures and pursue your dreams in life,” said Ko, who uses the pen name Jiu Ba Dao or Nine Knives, taken from a song he wrote in high school.
Over 14 years, Ko has turned out more than 70 novels, novellas, short stories and essays, around half of them published on the Internet and many adapted for television. He failed at first but kept writing, trying different genres, churning out thousands of words a day about romance, horror, suspense and fantasy. He finally got it right.
Three years ago he decided to make “You Are the Apple of My Eye,” using all his savings and mortgaging his house.
“Taiwan’s movie industry was depressed at that time, however, it has always been my dream to make this film. I used to spend money on cars and property, but now I’m proud to say that the most expensive thing I have ever bought in my entire life is a dream,” he told the students.
The executive producer Angie Chai “thought I was insane,” he said. She told him he could have earned a lot if he invested that money in other fields.
With a budget of only US$1.7 million, it made US$24 million in China. It was one of the highest-grossing movies ever screened in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Next month it will be released in Japan.
Set in the 1990s, the film follows Ko Ching-Ten, a smart underachiever, and his four pals who all fall in love with a beautiful honors student named Shen Jiayi. A teacher asks Shen to keep an eye on Ko, a smart aleck who disrupts class.
Through the years, all the “bad boys” try to impress her. Ko falls in love and continues to pursue her in university. There are sparks, but they never catch fire. She finally marries a successful older man.
The film evokes nostalgia about youth, school friendships, young love and dreams. People born in the 1970s and 80s said they were moved to tears by the director’s first-love experience.
In 2005, Ko and his friends attended Shen’s wedding. He then wrote, “The Girl We Chased Together in Those Years.”
The last time Ko and Shen spoke (in real life) they were in college and broke up after an argument over the telephone. “I held a boxing and martial arts championship and hoped to get her attention, but she said I was too naive. When I got angry and said I was naive and stupid to go after her for so many years, she hung up the phone, saying, “Then you can stop going after me’.”
In the film, that scene is depicted as a face-to-face fight in the rain. Ko said he was weeping as he shot the scene and thought at the time that everything might have been different had they spoken in person.
“It taught me to never end a relationship over the phone,” he said. “When you can’t read facial expressions, people tend to make the wrong decision and never know the real intention of their lovers.”
Professor Shi Chuan, a film expert and critic from Shanghai University, calls the movie one of the most successful coming-of-age comedy-romance films in China.
“It is an intimate tale of everyday people and it takes people back to their own sweet and bitter memories of adolescence,” Shi says. “Though the film doesn’t have any stunning special effects, the story is very compelling.”
Ko is now coproducing another romance, “My Rival in Love Is a Superman,” with Angie Chai. It’s based on his own novel about a young man’s adventures and growth in a fantasy world.
Next year Ko will direct his second feature film “Kung Fu,” a comedy about two high school students who fight crime using martial arts. The film budgeted at US$10 million is co-financed by Fox International Productions, as its first production in Taiwan.
He admits to fear of failure. “I am afraid but I will not give up,” he said. “People have to overcome fear. It’s much weightier than success and appears, in one form or another, on the way to success.”
Ko’s family runs a pharmacy in Changhua County; his father is a pharmacist and his mother a midwife. His elder brother took responsibility for the business, freeing Ko to pursue his interests.
He first dreamed of being a cartoonist and in middle school drew comics titled “Volleyball” about a volleyball team. He didn’t have a gift but drawing helped him visualize and helped him when he became a director.
His second dream was Shen Jiayi. For years he had a secret crush on her.
“I failed to be her boyfriend, but it was still an important experience. I learned that love is not sweet all the time, it is a mixture of sunshine and rain,” he said in his speech to students.
His third dream was writing novels, which he started during his last year in college.
“I am so lucky that I did not lose the courage to pursue a dream,” he says. “Courage can’t be obtained from a textbook, it is not a kind of skill or knowledge, but something deep in your heart waiting to be ignited.”
Ko recently completed the fantasy novel series “Legend of the Fate Hunter” and released a free cellphone reading app for all his works.
“I love to share my books,” he said. “Some will be adapted into films and all my readers are shareholders of my movie dream.”