In celebration of the Centennial of the Republic of China, the Walter Reade Theater hosts a rare panorama of the ever-surprising Taiwanese Cinema – from the intimate looks at daily life in the early 1960s, to the breathtaking new wave of filmmakers that arose in the 1980s (such as Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Edward Yang), and on to the fresh turning point marked by recent Taiwanese hits.
Wei Tei-Sheng”s Cape No. 7 (Hai Jiao Qi Hao, 2008) has the reputation of not only being a blockbuster success in Taiwan, becoming the 2nd top grossing film in the country, second only to Titanic (1997), and in the process grossing over 5 billion Taiwanese dollars, but it also has the lofty distinction of revitalizing the once dead Taiwanese film market. As the filmmaker Shen Ko-shang stated during the May 7th Conference on Taiwanese Cinema held at the Walter Reade Theatre, at the start of the 2000s, the Taiwanese film industry was ostensibly dead, leaving many recently graduated film students scurrying like ants as their once lofty ideals were quickly brought down to earth with the burden of not only finding funding for their films but also money to pay the rent. These confusing times were made more complicated by the fact that the stories and values that they wanted to project on screen ran counterpoint to contemporary audience tastes. Basically, if a filmmaker wanted to keep making films in Taiwan there really was only one of three routes they could take: commercials, music videos, or documentaries. And yet even in these not-so-halcyon days, there was a glimmer of hope.
It is often said that from severe restrictions, be it social, financial, or technological, can come great art and though Cape No. 7“s place in the film canon may not be assured, it is the culmination of a lot of the upheavals going on in the industry during that time, which made not only its eventual popularity but also its completion and eventual theatrical release such a miracle. The biggest change in Taiwan”s film industry during the noughts was that there was a conscious moving away from thinking of the medium of film as an art, exemplified by the works of Hou Hsiao-Hsien or Edward Yang, to now looking at film as more of a commodity to be sold in as many foreign markets as possible. This new agenda gave way to several co-productions and though filmmakers themselves began to look outside of Taiwan for inspiration, it is still being heavily debated if this boon in viewership and increase in the amount of films produced per year was well worth the cost of many film artist”s ideals.
Although Cape No. 7 is considered a contemporary box office, hit the film belongs to a genre which has a long history of popularity in Taiwanese culture not just in film but also in literature, theater, and television. The melodrama, as film critic and programmer Wen Tien-hsiang put it, is a genre having reached its apotheosis in the 1970″s alongside the martial arts/kung-fu genre and is replete with characters who “talk about nothing” and also involve ” a lot of self pity.” However, even though Wei Tei-Sheng”s film fits these conditions to a tee, there is far more to the film than meets the bleary eyed gaze of the Asian cinema fan.
First of all, there is the entrenched longing to return to an idealized past that runs throughout a majority of the film”s runtime. In fact, the film”s b-plot is the story of a native Taiwanese woman being reunited with the love letters her recently departed Japanese lover was too scared to send her during the immediate Postwar period. These flashbacks to that era are shot in a very glossy style, reminiscent of a classic MGM romantic melodrama. Through voice-over monologues we hear her phantom Japanese lover recount his sorrow and regret not only to his Taiwanese girlfriend, Tomoko, but to us, the audience, as well. And, of course, like any true melodrama, these scenes have the conventional weepy melancholic score running almost on auto-pilot.
This vein of nostalgia present throughout every scene in Sheng”s film can be boiled down to two concurrent conflicts within the story. The first is the classic generational conflict between young and old. Hengchun, the town where the story takes place, is a seaside town which has seen better days. Young men are in a constant flux, migrating away to cities like Taipei with dreams of “making it big” and local industries like fishing and farming have now been replaced with tourism as the main source of income for the town. The town”s governing body, populated by old men, fight any outsiders who threaten to invade their town, which I think can be read as a comment on Taiwan”s long colonial history starting with Japan and then through the large influx of Chinese from the mainland coming into the country after 1949.
This second conflict, native Taiwanese versus Chinese/Japanese transplants, is a complicated issue to address in Sheng”s film. With the stress of having to not only recoup expenses but also turn a profit for his financial backers it”s difficult to sort out what in the film was an “artistic” choice and what was included to attract a more global audience. Rock music, American pop culture, J-Pop singers, a multilingual cast, a female lead, Chie Tanaka, who plays a character of mixed Japanese and Chinese descent, and an A-story that relies on the tired Western plot convention of an entire town scrambling to making the needed preparations for the arrival of a big name star are all ingredients put in to make Cape No. 7 as globally palatable, assuring the film”s distribution in as many foreign markets as possible. And even the central dramatic conflict in Sheng”s film does little to rewrite the mobile casino rules of the romantic melodrama by having Hengchun”s Town Council Representative, played by Ju-Lung Ma, use his position to stop the concert unless the promoters hire a local group to be the opening band. The perfect segue for the poet/artist Aga (Van Fan), a failed musician living back home, to be conscripted into hastily assembling a band and writing two new songs before J-Pop star Kousuke Atari arrives.
A major factor, I believe, in Cape No. 7″s popularity though came not only because of a conscious decision to have a multi-ethnic cast or shooting in beautiful locales but because of Wei Tei-Sheng”s move towards exoticism. Populating his film not only with Mainlanders, Japanese, Australian and every skintone under the sun, Sheng also casts various Taiwanese minorities. Although the Hoklo, Hakka, and Rukai tribes all have prominent representation in the film, it is in the role of the “other”. Reminiscent of the West”s portrayal of Native Americans as the “noble savage”, Sheng paints these indigenous groups as simple, living their quaint small town livesm and also intrinsically connected to an ancient traditional past, thus playing into age-old cliches of the purity of the rural and the corrupting effects of the modern world. Also, a tangential issue that is brought up several times in Cape No. 7 is the division between “real Taiwanese” and foreign born transplants. Hong Kuo-jung, Aga”s step-father, constantly voicing his complaints about Mainlanders invading the town and taking away jobs from locals or the recurrent gag of Tomoko (Chie Tanaka) being unable to speak/understand the town”s regional dialect are just some examples of just how divided Taiwan is even as it is rapidly becoming a major financial force. The alcohol salesman (Ma Nien-hsien) who peddles Malasun, a cheap rice wine marketed as an ancient “aboriginal” drink, the beaded trinkets which become important totem objects for each band member, and the conflict between the older generation of musicians who only know how to play traditional instruments like the yueqin ,but still want a stage to showcase their abilities all offer audiences a pseudo-anthropology lesson into Taiwanese culture couched in-between the melodramatic love story playing before their eyes.
Of course, the love story is the film”s main attractions. Aga and Tomoko are fated to end up together before the end credits roll and the long protracted scenes where they fight, quarrel, cry, have sex, make up, and finally express there true feelings for each other are all abundantly there to irritate or enrapture the viewer. Aga, tanned and sporting a musician”s goat tee, is the quintessential portrait of a brooding poet/musician and Chie Tanaka”s sympathetic portrayal of shrill and emotional Tomoko all conform to the mandates of schmaltzy Asian dramas one can find playing on TV or ViKi.
Beyond the love story, the other big draw for audiences is the film”s soundtrack. Incorporating love ballads, aboriginal folk tunes, inoffensive rock songs and romantic poetry, it”s not really a leap to find the soundtrack to be so popular. Releasing a soundtrack recording becomes just another form of branding; fans of the film will buy the CD to prove their loyalty to the Cape No. 7 brand. Even the actress Chie Tanaka, because of the film”s popularity, now concentrates all her attention in Taiwan, all due to the established fanbase that grew from working on Wei Tei-Sheng”s film.
Though admired more for its financial success rather than its artistic accomplishmentsm Cape No. 7 did something that the whole Taiwanese New Wave movement could never do: it guaranteed a future for the Taiwanese film industry. Although the works of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tsai Ming-liang, and Edward Yang will always be held in high regard by cinephiles, all that admiration does not mean a boost in ticket sales. The move towards more streamlined Hollywood productions may mean a more homogenous product, but it does not mean that the film artist has vanished in Taiwan. Instead, filmmakers now must find a way to market themselves as well as their films.