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Taiwan has Cape fever, with critics, distributors, and government officials in a frenzy over how an obscure local musical became box office legend. APA throws in its seven cents.
The Taiwanese film audience is notoriously hard on its own local cinema, and has driven the local market share into the single digits in recent years. What makes the box office depression even more depressing is that Taiwan lives in shadow of a glorious past, when it once produced about as many films annually as Hollywood and fed an Asian market eager for professionally-made romances, melodramas, and martial arts films. Also looming over the current lull is the Taiwan New Cinema movement of the 1980s and early 90s, an anti-commercial cinema that won acclaim in film festivals around the world, but had the misfortune of inspiring a generation of young directors to make slow-moving art films instead of mass entertainment.
In recent years, local films have largely become synonymous with boredom manufactured for Western elites -- at least according to regular moviegoers. Audiences have become biased against Taiwanese films and exhibitors have refused to take chances even on films with the potential to break the mold. The collective pessimism thus spiraled out of control, and though every few years a local film or two would turn a profit at the box office and give a glimmer of hope, these were mere ripples in a tidepool.
And then came the splash. With a cast of relative unknowns, first-time director Wei Te-sheng exploded onto the scene with Cape No. 7, which is not only the highest grossing film of the year thus far, it is the highest earner in the Taiwanese box office in at least five years and possibly the highest after 1997's Titanic. Higher than The Dark Knight, Indiana Jones, and The Mummy. In fact, Cape No. 7 just might be the highest grossing Chinese-language film ever in the Taiwanese box office (not adjusting for inflation, of course) -- higher that any film by Ang Lee, John Woo, Zhang Yimou, or Stephen Chow.
But whereas those films cost many times more and boasted big-name actors, Cape No. 7 emerged out of seemingly nowhere to overtake them all and shake the industry to its very foundation.
Everyone has a theory about why Taiwanese cinema can't succeed financially. Now, everyone has a theory about why Cape No. 7 has succeeded when all else has failed. The consensus amongst critics and filmmakers is that Cape No. 7 surely isn't the "best" Taiwanese film of recent years, but there is no consensus about what made it strike a chord with the general public. But from people I've talked to and articles I've read, the most common arguments are that: 1) Cape No. 7 uses dialogue "realistically" and has "real" Taiwanese characters, 2) Cape No. 7 provides comedy in a time of economic depression, and 3) Cape No. 7 plays into Taiwanese cultural desires to re-align itself with its former colonizer Japan.
I'm not quite able to boil the film's success down to one reason, so I'll provide seven. The first three are meant to counter the above three typical explanations, which I feel are misleading and overly simplify the relationship between society and cinema.
1. Because it appeals to both local and cosmopolitan sensibilities. Many, many locals have tried to convince me that Cape No. 7 is successful because it's inherently "Taiwanese" -- it includes the Taiwanese dialect and it's about real Taiwanese issues like tourism. Anybody who gives this explanation clearly has not seen many local films. In fact, typically the problem is that Taiwanese films are too realistically local. The Taiwan New Cinema of the 1980s and 90s showed the complexity of dialect in Taiwanese society; Hou Hsiao-hsien's Goodbye South Goodbye is a masterpiece of Southern culture and values in an era of global capital. Meanwhile most Taiwanese films of the 1990s and early 2000s are obsessed with the psychoses of Taiwanese urban reality. These are films that self-consciously appealed to Taiwanese "realism," be it of the urban North or the rural South. These movies tanked at the box office.
Compared with those films, Cape No. 7 is bad "realism." It also doesn't probe "Taiwan-ness" remotely as well as films by other directors. And how can it be "local" when the film is about Taiwanese people's love for rock and roll and Japanese culture? Perhaps what makes Cape No. 7 fun isn't that it's "Taiwanese" in any simplistic sense (like the one often provided by the Democratic Progressive Party), but that it shows how Taiwanese "locality" includes the cosmopolitan.
But that assumes Taiwanese audiences are open to considering "Taiwan-ness" as defined by the global as much as by Taiwanese food or dialect, which are traditionally what is thrown out as definitive of "the local." Unfortunately, Taiwan is split between those who see their identity as defiantly local and those who see it as necessarily integrated into a world system. What Cape No. 7 manages to do is to appeal to both sensibilities. Hollywood obsesses over creating the "four quadrant film" -- a film that appeals to males and females, old and young. The trick is to include aspects that appeal to each quadrant. Cape No. 7 does the same along the lines of local and cosmopolitan. If you're looking for "realistic Taiwanese local identity," you will find it. If you're looking for the pleasures of cosmopolitanism (both Western and Japanese), you will find it too.
Just take the first line in the film spoken by main character Aga, a failed singer from the big city. "Fuck Taipei!" he proclaims, and decides to move to the more rural South. For the "local Taiwan" camp, "Fuck Taipei!" is his repudiation of cosmopolitanism and his embrace of the local. For the cosmopolitan camp, "Fuck Taipei!" is typical urban self-hate -- like of those who say they hate Los Angeles but couldn't live anywhere else.
2. Because it makes people laugh. Simple as that. It's not that Taiwan craves comedy now because of the financial crisis, as some would claim. Otherwise The House Bunny would be successful too, but it's not. The thing is, Taiwan has always craved comedy, but the local industry has historically been unable to successfully provide it. The best comedians in Taiwan are on TV, which is incredibly popular among the general public. Cape No. 7 is written by a director who wants to make people laugh (relatively rare in Taiwanese cinema), and who actually has the talent to deliver the jokes (even more rare).
Most comedies (from any country) have a few clunkers in them, and Cape No. 7 is no exception. But it succeeds because it gets a few solid laughs in during the opening scenes and therefore wins the audience's trust that this is no ordinary Taiwanese film. Certain comic-relief supporting characters (like the Hakka liquor salesman and the old yueqin player) carry the comedy through at regular intervals throughout the film. We continue to laugh because we like them and we're glad they're onscreen. Cape No. 7 convinces us that the jokes are funny -- which is in some sense the essence of comedy.
3. Because it's melodramatic. If melodrama is the basis of Hollywood cinema, as some film theorists have argued, then it's not surprising that it's the most dominant rhetorical mode in world cinema (including Bollywood). Audiences love a good cry as much as they do a good laugh, and if a film can do both effectively, it's a guaranteed success. But good melodrama is much harder than putting together some deathbed scenes and hearty declarations of self-sacrifice. It's about rhythm, structure, acting, and scenery. It's also about the right music at the right time; a beat off and the drama melts into cheese.
Many critics have argued that Cape No. 7 plays into Taiwan's post-colonial love for Japan. I wouldn't necessarily dispute this. After all, the film would not have the same effect if the love interest were, say, Indonesian or German. However, I think there's more to Taiwan's relationship with Japan than simply post-colonial. For instance, there's also the rise of the Japanese pop culture industry throughout East Asia, of which Taiwan is a part.
But that's not my beef with the post-colonial argument. The problem is that most of these critics talk about the issue as if any film where characters fall in love with Japanese stuff is therefore nostalgic for colonization. These critics don't engage with the film as a film -- in other words, as a work of art that makes audiences laugh and cry. Are they crying because at heart they miss Japan? Doubtful. I'd argue that they're crying because the film presents certain visual, verbal, and musical cues that elicit tears. The ending scene onstage is written by somebody who surely knows Hollywood melodrama. There's no surer trick in the rom-com handbook than to have the cool male character embarrass himself to everyone to prove his love for the girl. And if the music is just right, and the shots and reverse shots are perfectly timed, the audience is yours. Then throw in a few laughs so they can chuckle through their tears. Melodrama doesn't work better than that.
There is, however, the issue of Cape No. 7's backstory. The main character Aga is a postman who has to deliver an old package, but opens it instead. He discovers in it love letters from a Japanese man to his Taiwanese lover over sixty years ago. Couldn't this indeed very nostalgic view of Taiwanese-Japanese love be construed as a throw-back to the colonial days? Perhaps, but the reference to Japan might be less nefarious if we consider that this might be as much a generic gesture as much as it is a post-colonial one. Narrating a present romance in terms of a past romance is a staple of Asian teen romance, perfected by the Koreans in films like Il Mare and The Classic. The parallel stories bolster each other's credibility. Both romances in Cape No. 7 are frankly underdeveloped, but because they intercut with each other, they seem to grow in importance to the point where the final reference to the old couple gives just enough melodramatic momentum to make us believe in the contemporary one. Seen in the light of genre and melodrama, it becomes less definite that the backstory is about colonial Taiwan; it could simply be a stylistic flourish. In short, it's fine to discuss the ideological basis of the film, but we must consider first how these bases are articulated via style and genre.
4. Because the actors are well-cast. Recent Chinese films have attempted to capture the Taiwanese audience by casting the biggest stars. Blood Brothers has the who's who of Mandarin-speaking stars (Shu Qi, Chang Chen, Liu Ye, Tony Yang). So does Three Times (Chang Chen, Shu Qi), Catch (Tony Yang), Curse of the Golden Flower (Gong Li, Liu Ye, Jay Chou), Secret (Jay Chou, Kwei Lun-mei), and the forthcoming Parking (Chang Chen, Kwei Lun-mei). See the problem? Taiwanese cinema is too small and doesn't have enough screen stars to sustain a star-driven industry. Seeing the same actors in every film, regardless of whether they best fit the role, makes local films tiresome. This is a problem that can be solved if the industry figures out how best to develop new actors and import stars from TV, music, and other Chinese-speaking territories.
In the meantime, the ability to cast essentially unknown actors is an enormous asset. Cape No. 7's Fan Yi-chen has the perfectly distraught, too-mysterious-to-smile look. He's rocker cool (dark, ambiguous), not the clown cool you get in most Taiwanese pop culture, like the self-loving parade of obnoxiousness populating films like Exit No. 6 or My DNA Says I Love You. Fan Yi-chen's depressed look is balanced by cheery sidekicks like Ma Nien-hsien (who plays Malasun) and Hsi Tien Huang (who plays the chairman). Chie Tanaka (Tomoko) and Chin-Yen Chang (Meiling) are attractive as the love interests, but they don't look like models and therefore never become distracting (ahem, Red Cliff). Everyone looks their part -- that is, like characters in a blockbuster movie, but ones who have sensibilities like people you might actually know. They're not chosen because they're celebrities, but because they're what the film calls for. That the Cape No. 7 stars are all celebrities in Taiwan following the film's popularity speaks to how glossily the film is put together. As with comedy, the trick is to convince the audience that these are celebrities, which the big-budget films often forget to do. In a market that's already quite cynical, you can't take anything for granted.
5. Because the songs work. I'm not saying the songs are great, but sometimes great songs don't necessarily make a movie better. Effective film music is that which serves a function, usually emotional. And in the case with Cape No. 7, there's such a build-up to the final scene where the songwriter finally reveals the song he's written for his love interest. As I've written before in terms of Linda, Linda, Linda, withholding songs make the audience crave it even more, and when it finally arrives, it packs quite a wallop, especially if it's a decently-catchy pop tune. At the end of Cape No. 7, the song "South of the Border" is set up via an effective exchange of glances from offstage and onstage, from the performers to the love interest to the audience below. The packaging of the song rouses the senses, and the actual performance is the release.
But the song also "works" in another sense. It becomes economic "work" outside of the movie theater, exploited by the record label in music video, karaoke, ringtones, and now a soundtrack album. As a result, the song is ubiquitous in Taiwan, known by old and young, male and female, northern and southern. If you're a small-town rock band, you better have "Wu Le Bu Zuo" in your repertoire if you want to warm up the audience. If you go to a KTV, you better have the melody down.
Film songs in Chinese cinema are especially interesting because their lives on- and off-screen mutually enforce each other. When you go see the film, you learn the song, and you can listen to it on your iPod and sing it at karaoke. And when you hear your friends singing it, or hear it on buses and malls, you learn it even if you haven't seen the film. And when you finally do see it, it sounds all the more catchy, exciting, and melodramatic because you've been dreaming it for days already. That's certainly been the case for Cape No. 7, a phenomenon of both film and music.
6. Because it's a Hollywood-style genre film. No narrative experiments or cinematic trickery that we've become accustomed to in Taiwanese cinema. Even so-called mainstream films have an art-film sensibility (Blue Gate Crossing, Winds of September) or philosophical ambitions (Double Vision, Orz Boyz). Cape No. 7 has no such aspirations. Its beach-front locations are like a Hawaii-set fantasy a la Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Its flashbacks to the past evoke Titanic.
But above all, it belongs to the "putting-on-a-show" subgenre of the Hollywood musical. Those are the films (like Singin' in the Rain or the many 1950s rock musicals) about talented young people who overcome all odds to put on a once-in-a-lifetime musical extravaganza that combines romance, youth, and independence. The challenge of such films is to properly build up the momentum and deliver a rockin' show. There can be subplots (a romance, an argument with a parent) but they need not be well done (in this case, they're not), since as in all effective Hollywood films, subplots are emotionally resolved by the master plot. Put on a good show, and all else is forgotten. Most Taiwanese films are too obsessed with the realistic details, the allegory, the formal elegance, that they forget that for the general audience, you need only to hit a home run when it counts.
7. Because it got great word of mouth. You might think that word of mouth is a reaction to all of the positive qualities I listed above, but it's not that automatic. Cape No. 7 got lucky in that no other film (even from Hollywood) was very buzz-worthy at the time, and thus it could monopolize conversation about film. I don't quite know how it started or what people were saying, but it was enough to get the ball rolling. Cape No. 7 opened modestly at #4 in the Taipei box office, which is pretty decent for a local film. The next week, it actually increased in numbers. And then it exploded, moving to #1 in its third week, and continued to make more and more each week. The film didn't start losing numbers until the sixth week, a remarkable feat in an industry where films are expected to drop about 50% each week. It's now been #1 for eight consecutive weeks -- and counting.
Cape No. 7 got great word of mouth because it got great word of mouth. For a local film -- that most despised category of film in Taiwan -- to get good buzz was enough for everyone to want to see it to believe it. In that sense, this inflated box office may only be a one-time deal, since the next Cape No. 7 won't come with that element of surprise. But what the Taiwanese industry doesn't need are more shocks like Cape No. 7. What it needs are directors interested in making comedies that are funny, romances that are romantic, and melodrama that's moving. I'm fearful that Cape No. 7 will lead to copycats rather than craft, which is what Cape No. 7 demonstrated most impressively. The industry can't rely on word-of-mouth to win back the audience. It needs to win back the audience's trust, not just its attention.
Date Posted: 10/31/2008