“Hái jiao ci hao” (Cape No. 7, (2008) is the highest grossing film ever produced in Taiwan, breaking the box office records set by surpassing Ang Lee’s “Lust: Caution” that broke the record set by his “Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon” and is likely to become the highest grossing 2008 movie in Taiwan, and the second (to “Titanic”) highest-grossing film ever in Taiwanese box-office history. I thought it was a fairly entertaining romantic comedy involving a Japanese functionary putting on an event for a Japanese-financed resort in the south of Taiwan (inside Kenting National Park) and a moody rock guitarist and song writer. The antagonism of Tomoko (Chie Tanaka) and Aga (Van Fan) leads to romance in the long tradition of screwball comedies. The running time of 129 minutes seemed long to me.
At the start of the movie, Aga is loading up his motorbike to leave Taipei, having failed to make it in the Big City. Having difficulty balancing his guitar, he smashes it against a light poll. I’m sure the city felt punished by this deed…
At home in Hengchun (in the Pingtung Prefecture), where Aga’s corrupt step-father (Ma Ju-Lung) has become head of the city council, Aga mopes until he starts filling in for the stringy Old Mao (Johnny Chung-Jen Lin) as a postman. Aga only delivers a small fraction of the mail. He is fascinated by a box to an address neither Old Mao nor anyone else can figure out that should be returned to Japan. In it are some love letters from a Japanese man (pop star Atari Kôsuke) who had been a teacher in the Japanese colony of Taiwan and in love with a young Taiwanese named Tomoko. The 1945 unsent letters were only discovered after their author’s recent death. “Cape No. 7” is the address of Tomoko from 60+ years earlier. (Surely, the Japanese household registries are extant and it should not be so difficult to decode the addressee, but… the story was inspired by a real case of a postman in Yunlin succeeding in delivering mail delayed 60 years.)
Aga’s step-father has demanded that an aboriginal (the Austronesians who were on Taiwan before any Chinese immigration, herein, I think, Rukai) band perform at the concert, before the imported-from-Japan pop star Atari Kouseke. Aga does not want to perform with a local pick-up band that includes a preteen pianist (Joanne Yang) and a sixtyish bass guitarist (who is supplanted by the octogenarian Old Mao, who heretofore has played the yueqin, a two-string banjo), and a Hakka traveling rice-wine salesman (Ma Nien-Hsien) pushing the brand Malasun. Not only do the locals come together and do well, but love between Aga and Tomoko blooms as they become obsessed with the love letters and conquers his self-disgust. There are a whole series of happy endings. (One, involving the traffic cop with whom Aga has an early altercation and who becomes a backup guitarist, has disappeared from the DVD since the theatrical release, though the DVD runs longer than the theatrical release did.)
The triumph of the ragtag band is as predictable as the antagonists falling in love is in movie logic, and the flashback illustrations of the letters are exceedingly mawkish. Those characters have not earned the tragic status that they are given. We see nothing of their relationship before the Japanese man was shipped back to Japan (and nothing of his later life and only glimpses from behind of the Taiwanese recipient of the letters.)
There is quite a bit of comedy that is musical (the young pianist in church so decorating the “A” or “Amen” that the minister and congregation were out of breath before she deigned to supply them with the concluding “men” note of the “Amen,” Old Mao on three different instruments, and drummer Frog’s shenanigans beyond those of his appearance). The moody leads inspire audience goodwill, and the laughs stimulated by the supporting characters endear the movie to audiences.
I have asked some Taiwanese friends why this likable but notably unoriginal movie has been so popular in Taiwan. That it in Taiwanese (Holo/Hokkien), the mother tongue of the majority of the population (but not the official language) has some importance, as does that the movie had a big budget for a Taiwanese movie ($NT 50 million, about $US 1.5 million). Although primarily Taiwanese, there are speakers of Japanese and Mandarin in the movie as well, and the Taiwanese lead is of aboriginal (Austronesian) descent. Hailed for putting “real Taiwanese characters” on the screen, “Cape No. 7” seems to me to put a very familiar underdog success story and a very familiar antagonisms-to-love stories, with a romance broken off by larger geopolitical changes on the screen. It also plays to nostalgia for the Japanese era in which many Taiwanese believe Taiwanese were better treated than in the decades of martial law by the Kuomintang ferried to Taiwan by the US Navy following the surrender of Japan and renunciation of its claims to Taiwan (acquired from the Q’ing dynasty in 1895).
The content of “Taiwaneseness” in “Cape No. 7” seems to be an amalgam of unease with The City (Taipei) and involvement with Japanese pop music and rock’n’roll. This is “Taiwanese”? I think so: a sort of nostalgia-heavy cosmopolitan postmodernism that does not look to China or Chinese culture. (The flashbacks in particular, but also the many shots of the ocean and the focus on a melodramatic song: “Wu Le Bu Zuo” has become as popular in Taiwan and “My Heart Will Go On” was everywhere in 1997) seem nostalgic for the success of “Titanic”.) (Yeah, “Taiwanese culture” is very hybrid (see the books I have coauthored with Keelung Hong on Taiwanese culture and society), and I have heard of globalization…)
The movie is a throwback to “Titanic” and to such “putting on a show” Hollywood musicals as “Summer Stock,” “The Dirt Dozen,” and “School of Rock.” There is nothing of the offputting experiments in narration of Tsai Ming-Liang (Rebels of the Neon God, The River) and other Taiwanese “New Wave” directors herein. Director Wei Te-Sheng got his start in films working with Edward Yang, the director of the international success “Yi Yi” (2000), which I think is a great film (it also had lines spoken in Taiwanese and Japanese, BTW).