The enormous commercial success of the film 'Cape No. 7' (海角七號) probably comes as a surprise to many. In little over one month, the film has grossed over an estimated NT$200million (US$6million, about 4.4 million euro) in Taiwan alone (it has not yet been released outside of Taiwan), and is tipped to become the higest grossing film in the history of Taiwanese domestic film industry.
Photo Courtesy of Cape No. 7 Official Blog/劇照來自海角七號官網 http://cape7.pixnet.net/blog/
Copyrights/版權所有: Buena Vista Pictures/果子電影
The film, directed by a previously unknown Taiwanese director, has neither a star-studded cast nor won prestiegous prizes at renown foreign film festivals. Yet it has already achieved what many critically acclaimed award-winning Taiwanese art-house films have failed to do: 'Cape No. 7' has established itself as the most fashionable cultural icon over here in Taiwan. You are now considered out of touch with the trend unless you have already watched the film. Even my Mum, who has never expressed any interest in going to the cinema to watch any films, was persuaded by her friends to give it a try 'because they said it is such a fun film'.
Speaking of which, I must admit that I myself had had little interest in the film until my Mum asked the whole family to accompany her to the cinema. Yes, I had read some positive reviews on the web before, but I have never been a fan of Asian films-and I honestly do not feel any sense of loss by missing out on award-winning titles such as 'Lust, Caution' by Ang Lee. (I only agreed to watch 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' by Ang Lee because my friends begged and dragged me to go watch it with them...)
Which is why 'Cape No. 7' is kind of a unexpected treat for me, because it is different from most Chinese-language films produced by Taiwanese directors. OK, the film is not perfect: the plot could be a bit more compact; it has quite a few loose ends, and the opening 3D effects are less than convincing, but the storyline offers a refreshing mixture of romantic idealism, optimistic realism, humour and subtle reflections of current Taiwanese society, at the same time it is entertaining, fun and commercially viable. And the music ... it is up there with some of the best in the movie business.
In the past, most Taiwanese art house films are commercial flops. Box office hits are usually the stupid, senseless, tasteless, even morbid stuff manufactured en masse in Hong Kong film studios. High-end art house films are so incomprehensible and 'sophisticated' in taste and execution that nobody really understands or cares about what the films are all about. The ever widening gap between 'artistic creativity' and box-office marketability resulted in a declining market for home-made films in Taiwan.
In my opinion, the overwhelming commercial success of 'Cape No. 7' has something to do with the following factors:
A. It's fun and entertaining without being 'cheap' or 'banal' - in other words, the film proved that it is possible to combine commercially successful popular entertainment full of southern Taiwanese cultural elements with artistic/aesthetic achievements. The momentum of the film relies in large part on true Taiwanese-style local humour which brings a smile to those who understand the intricacies of the local Taiwanese tongue. The film makes clever use of wordplays, not some cheap sexist jokes or meaningless mutter so commonly found in run-of-the-mill Hong Kong productions.
B. Unlike most Taiwanese films, 'Cape No. 7' gives the audience a 'feel-good factor' and a sense of 'Hope' and 'Fulfillment'. People emerge from the cinemas feeling bright and positive about life and the future. In the past, one of the biggest problems with Taiwanese films is that they tend to be extremely gloomy, dark and melancholic in terms of its outlook and interpretation, especially when they attempt to deal with Taiwan's troubled past. Also many Taiwanese directors produce films so complex and intellectually demanding (in order to qualify for major film competitions abroad) that they lost touch with the audience and end up making films nobody bothers to care.
Although 'Cape No. 7' also attempts to address the issue of close historical ties between Taiwan's present and her Japanese colonial past, the director chose to adopt a cheerful, positive approach in his interpretation of the island's relationship with Japan. As a result, instead of the usual bleak tragic undertones, throughout the film the message is one of 'hope' and 'aspiration', that 'rainbow will appear after the storm'.
The film challenges the prejudice, perpetuated by mainstream mass media in Taiwan, that 'Taiwanese grassroot culture a.k.a. indigenous culture' is 'inferior' to the so-called Chinese high culture. (In an interview with the film's director, he said he was told by many in the Taiwanese film business circle that films 'with too much Taiwanese cultural awareness or history' would not do well at the box office, and he decided to take the plunge to make this film to prove them wrong.) 'Cape No. 7' found echo in many Taiwaneses' inner imagination, because it opens up a new direction: the film is based on things Taiwanese audience are familiar with, at the same time the director successfully blends cosmopolitan artistic expressions with a strong dose of local Taiwanese humour, demonstrating that Taiwanese grassroot culture is not imcompatible with (foreign) intelllectual and cultural refinements. In other words, Taiwanese culture is a composite of tradition and modernity, of the old and the young, of things local and foreign, and is always open to new influences.
For instance, the bedroom of Aga (the male lead in the film who has spent 15 years trying to establish himself in the rock scene in Taipei without success) at his old family home in the southern Taiwanese town of Hengchun is decorated with bookshelves full of highly sophisticated literary works written by European (Italian) playwrights, in addition to renown classic art-house film posters featuring Hepburn and Co. The scene smells of subtle sarcasm, aiming to ridicule the self-proclaimed cultural superiority of those who look down upon southern Taiwan as unsophisticated and crude. How many of the self-proclaimed elites actually know how to write a original rock-and-roll song or play in a rock band, let along reading obscure classic works written by some relatively unknown Italian playwrights?
Another example of grassroot culture merging with foreign elements is personified by the 80 year old protagonist, Mao-Bou (Uncle Mao), who works as a postman, speaks Taiwanese most of the time, and uses the F-word as frequently as he plays his traditional string instrument. All of the above seem to fit into the usual stereotype, especially common in the urban areas of Taiwan, of an uneducated working-class rural male in southern Taiwan. Yet on the other hand, Uncle Mao the protagonist is an accomplished musician, he sings classical world folk music and speaks flawless Japanese, something which allows him to come into contact with the wider (intellectual) world outside of his small town existence.
The film serves to underline an interesting paradox in Taiwan: that is, with all the fuss surrounding the process of globalisation, Taiwan has all along been a cultural melting pot for at least several centuries, and this process of cultural fusion is still going on. Yet many people in Taiwan seem unaware of this. Instead they often equate globalisation with learning to speak English and to attend elite universities in the US. The film shows that globalisation in Taiwan is a much more multi-facet and complex mechanism than most people have been led to believe, and the process can and should take place in as many different ways as possible, instead of drawing its inspiration one-dimensionally from one single source of influence.
C. It is one of the first Taiwanese art-house films to look at the life experience of ordinary folks from a predominantly non-mainstream, non-urban, small-town southern Taiwan perspective. The unspoken irony throughout the film is the protrayal of Taipei urbanites as conformists lacking in imagination (as embodied by young Tomoko's modelling agency boss, who told her the reason for Tomoko's failure to become a model is because her looks are no longer fashionable); as outsiders who share no love for the land, who only want to exploit the scenic beauty and wealth-generating potential of the rural South for their own gains, without giving back much in return.
A common feature among many of the characters in the film is their disillusionment with Taipei and their struggle (in vain) to achieve recognition, sense of self-fulfillment or happiness in the metropole in the north. This feeling of powerlessness to prove one's worth in an alien surrounding found resonance in many viewers who themselves, as one of the rural-urban migrants, also struggled to find a place in the cold and pretentious north. The overwhelming response and the readiness by ordinary viewers to relate themselves to one or more of the characters in the film is proved by the sheer number of personal feedbacks sent to the film's official web blog (http://cape7.pixnet.net/blog/)
In 'Cape No. 7', Taipei, the anti-thesis of the bright and beautiful southern Taiwan. barely features. It appeared briefly in the opening minute, when Aga the male lead smashed his guitar and cursed 'Fxxx U Taipei'; after which the city faded quickly and completely from the film. Throughout the next 120 minutes, nobody in the film seems to care about the place called Taipei. Taipei, the symbol of alienation and aloofness, has become a non-entity in the most successful Asian film ever shown in Taiwan.
Given the current state of politics in Taiwan, when grassroot political influences are constantly bedeviled by China-funded mass medias as 'corrupt' and 'useless', while indigenous cultural and identity awareness are constantly brush-painted as 'banal' or 'inferior', the release of 'Cape No. 7' offers many an opportunity to voice their disagreement of the pro-China daily media coverage of everyday life in Taiwan by means of watching the film. Regardless of the original intention of the film's director, 'Cape No. 7' has become a trendy cultural icon, a rallying point for indigenous identity ('Go watch the film if you support Taiwan'), and a powerful emotional valve for which those who are disenchanted with the current events in Taiwan, yet feeling powerless in bringing about any real changes. For once, there comes a local film that those who identify with local Taiwanese values can be sincerely proud of.
Understanding the Film: Some Advice for Foreign Viewers
Honestly speaking, foreign viewers who have little or no understanding of the local Taiwanese language will not be able to understand most of the fun in the film. 80% of the dialogues constituted of Taiwanese, followed by Japanese and some Mandarin-Chinese.
Due to the rather crappy English sub-title, those who speak none of the above languages probably will not understand why the film is so well-received in Taiwan.
One also needs a comprehensive understanding of Taiwanese history and contemporary politics in order to get at the jokes. Some of the film reviews are clearly written by those who have very little insights about life and society in Taiwan. For instance, the perception of Japan as a nation by local Taiwanese is very different, when compared to other Asian nations. In Taiwan, Japan and Japanese culture are not something to be loathed at or be feared. Instead, Japanese influences can be found everywhere in Taiwanese daily life, are extremely popular and highly respected, both by young people and the older generation. Such a phenomenon is rare elsewhere in Asia, and is certainly something which the pro-China faction in Taiwanese local politics are refusing to acknowledge.
The film brings to attention some pressing problems facing the development of Taiwan's peripheral areas:
- the highly unequal distribution of resources within Taiwan, especially between the island's rural and urban areas: while most available funds and resources are being channelled to the already highly prosperous industrial north, rural south has received a smaller-than-fair share of the funds available for regional development
- as a result of lack of investment and development, employment opportunities in the rural districts are limited and young people are forced to move to urban areas in search of better jobs, thereby leading to further under-development, and a north-south polemic
Unless one understands the importance of such structural inbalance and the emotional impacts of such development pattern on the psyche of local community, an objective film review is unthinkable.
p.s. Some bloggers have expressed certain degree of disdain regarding what they considered 'the fanatical support' of the film. Well, perhaps some people have jumped on the bandwagon simply because the film has become a phenomenon at the box office, but I genuinely hope that most of those who cheer the film do so because they enjoy the film and identify with it.
Still, it is good to see a film with more than 80% of the dialogues in Taiwanese so well received. Its appeal has reached an extremely wide specturm of audience, comprising of all ages ,sexes and class, from young people to old age pensioners, housewives, school children... Never have I seen so many viewers aged 50 and above going to cinemas. The thing about this film is, everybody likes it for different reasons. And its screenplay, dialogues etc., even music, will set you thinking about it agin and again, for a long long time.
p.p.s. It is said that 'Cape No.7' is the only film to have ever attained such heights at box office records using the internet (official blog, private forums and personal blogs) as the sole means of advertisement.