Saturday, November 22, 2008

Cape No. 7 (Hai Jiao Qi Hao / 海角七號)

We Did What?


Based on the skimming of the synopsis alone, I thought Cape No. 7 bore some resemblance to an upcoming Japanese film The Shonen Merikensack which was featured in the recent Tokyo International Film Festival. Well, at least the characters have to come together to form a band, and are managed by a lady. And that this film had Japanese elements in it too. But this is a Taiwanese movie, and its success back at home, being its #1 film of all time, has undoubtedly raised the curiosity level as to what actually made this movie tick, so much so as to garner numerous nominations in this year's Golden Horse awards.

Being Taiwan's submission to next year's Academy Awards to compete in the Foreign-Language category, this film got no love by the distributors/censors here as it was deemed that the PG rating, with 2 badly butchered cuts for coarse language, overruled the NC16 version. Granted they would want this to be accessible by most, it was nonetheless badly edited, and the cuts were quite jarring to say the least. Though the word "kan" (F-word equivalent) was uttered loudly, it seemed to be OK and passed with no issues. Yes, it's in local dialect, and even for me, the Hokkien language used was unfamiliar, and I had to rely on the subtitles to understand the meaning of what was said by various characters from time to time.

There are two stories here in Cape No. 7. One involves a case of forbidden love between a Japanese man and a Taiwanese woman, and his forced separation to return to Japan. On the sea journey, he confesses his love through 7 letters (hence the title) which he never found the courage to deliver them, and had them locked away, both the letters, and emotionally his heart. It was until his demise that his daughter discovered the truth, and decided to mail them back to the known address, which of course since WWII, no longer exists.

So the letters get into the hands of main protagonist Aga (Van Fan), who was a rock band singer in Taipei who failed to make good, and returned to his village of Hangchun to become a part time postman. Not knowing where to send those letters to, he eventually brings them back (with stacks of other letters due to his nonchalant work attitude), and got to read the big romantic story contained within. Meanwhile, he has to juggle with a band put together by the Mayor/Representative of the town, as well as Tomoko (Tanaka Chie) who is the local coordinator for a big Japanese singer coming to Hengchun, and the motley band is to be the opening act.

I didn't find much to celebrate in the romantic story as told from within those letters, ala The Notebook style. For some reason it failed to move me, and I can't see past the cliches within, though it got framed from within very luscious cinematography. However, it served as an ample backdrop on which to evaluate the relationship between Van and Tomoko, now being a Taiwanese man and a Japanese woman, the former a struggling musician, while the latter, after her Taiwan stint, has a cushy job waiting for her back in Japan. Given that they started off as loggerheads and slowly developing a liking for each other, it doesn't take rocket science to figure out what will happen eventually.

But the crux of the movie rested on the shoulders of a typical Japanese Zero-To-Hero formula, and here we have a bunch of misfits who can't play together, being forced to team up. Each comes with emotional baggage and plenty of background pathos, and here's where the strength of the movie resided in, as written and directed by Wei Te-Sheng, They are all likable characters, even though they are, like everyone else, flawed to begin with, which makes them easy to identify, and sympathize with.

We have the drummer Frog (Ying Wei-min) who is a mechanic, and harbours an unrequited love for his boss' buxomy wife, Rauma (Min-Hsiung) an ex-SWAT Taipei cop now being demoted to a traffic cop in a small town because of his ill-temper, Malasun (Ma Nien-hsien) who started off as a street smart rice wine salesman before being recruited as bassist, a ten year old keyboardist in Dada (Joanne) who has been kicked out from providing her service in church because of her failure to conform to playing for a (boring) congregation, and last but not least, an elderly "Gem" of the town Old Mao (Johnny Lin) who struggles to keep up with the rest, and having to insist that he gets to play a part in their performance. In fact, Johnny Lin steals almost every scene with his fast talking uncouth mouth, that you just wait look forward to each of his screen appearances, and anticipate with glee when the punchline will be delivered.

It's a slice of life of a small Taiwanese town where everyone almost knows everyone else, and you can see how certain dynamics between the private and public sector comes into play. In its human story, the themes of love and cooperation, respect and understanding all come into play and get expressed, and it is unlikely anyone will not get swayed by the sincerity and small town charm it exudes throughout. And as for building up to the final act, it's something that doesn't disappoint, or find a need to summarize or opting for a cop out. It delivered where it mattered, and finished off very strongly.

Cape No. 7 earns a "recommended" tag from me, and it's as feel good as you can get about a film and its wonderful themes. It's no wonder already why and how this film would make Taiwan, and of course the town of Hengchun, a tourist attraction already.

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