Cape No. 7 – 海角七号
Director: Wei Te-Sheng (魏德聖)
Cast: Van Fan (范逸臣), Chie Tanaka (田中千絵), Ming Hsiung (民雄), Joanne Yang (楊蕎安)
At the risk of offending an entire country, I have to say that Wei Te-Sheng’s Cape No. 7 is an enjoyable film… and that’s about it. The second most successful film in Taiwanese cinema history (behind Titanic, sadly enough), yet the most successful Taiwanese film overall, is billed as a love story, but the love story that we do not see as well as the plights of supporting characters end up being much more compelling than the present day affair between the film’s two central characters.
Aga (Van Fan) is hopelessly full of angst after failing to make it big in the Taipei music scene, so he returns home to Hengchun and gets a job as a mail carrier, a job at which he is also not very good. When he comes into possession of an undeliverable piece of mail, he decides to open it only to discover seven letters written in the 1940s, following Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II, by a Japanese man to Tomoko, the Hengchun woman he foolishly and cowardly left behind upon his decision to return to Japan. It’s a sweet and very good-natured subplot and provides for some of the best moments in the film thanks to the musical motif that accompanies the letter readings, which sounds like it came straight from the mind of Joe Hisaishi. Unfortunately, the primary story just cannot add up to this undercurrent of unfulfilled love and would have been a total chore to watch if not for the supporting cast.
Aga eventually meets Tomoko (yes, the same name as the woman in the letters), a supposed-to-be fashion model who instead does more work translating between English-Taiwanese-Japanese. When she is reluctantly put in charge of forming a local band to open up for the visiting Kousuke Atara (中 孝介, playing himself), pop sensation from Japan, Aga is recruited as vocalist and lead guitarist. As you can probably guess, sparks eventually fly, but in a very routine fashion. Aga and Tomoko (Chie Tanaka) initially despise one another, for no reason than because they are both bitter as can be. He is forever in angst due to his musical failure while she dislikes her new task and everyone involved with it. But after a night of heavy drinking and lovemaking and thanks to the heartbreaking letters putting some major cracks in Aga’s protective shell, their feelings begin to bloom and Aga again finds his love of music. The problem, for me, with their relationship is that it seems more perfunctory than genuine or even essential to the story, because in the end, their relationship is not essential to the story as it is presented. The letters themselves stand for more than just unfulfilled love. As we learn more about the supporting characters’ ambitions, desires, and unfulfilled dreams, the letters become a symbol, a physical manifestation of everything they have yet to accomplish. That Wei instead chooses to focus primarily on the love story is a shame, not because love in general is bland or banal, but because it doesn’t exist between these two characters except on paper. The actors themselves, Van Fan and Chie Tanaka do not exhibit the necessary chemistry for a truly memorable romance and they instead just go through the motions with no real insight into their personalities and no real reason for their affections for one another except that they slept together one night. So what we are left with is a disconnect between the film’s subtext and what we actually see.
Thankfully, despite the awful love story, the film has plenty to recommend for audiences looking for more commercial Taiwanese cinema. The supporting cast is the film’s saving grace and an overall pleasure to watch, making the film more enjoyable than it perhaps should have been. Rauma (Ming Hsiung), the band’s guitarist, is actually quite touching as a former SWAT officer abandoned by his wife. Young Dada’s (Joanne Yang) tendency to showboat as she plays piano at church or in the band and her habitual use of a long, drawn out “Amen” at the end of each song makes for some of the film’s quirkier moments. Check out this clip of Joanne in action.
But the film’s standout is the exuberant Malasun, a persistent Hakka wine salesman hawking his local wine in the hopes it will go international. His determination and trademark “MA-LA-SUN!” greeting make him an endearing character. It is in characters like these where the film really draws its strengths, and not just from their comic relief but also from their local appeal. Talking with Taiwanese friends of mine, I learned that a large part of the film’s appeal is due less to the romantic angle and more to the humorous use of the local Taiwanese dialects, much like the local appeal in China of Ning Hao’s (宁浩) hilarious film Crazy Stone (瘋狂的石頭). That you have individuals of different ethnic origins, from subcultures of Han people to aboriginal Rukai persons, forming a band and coalescing by the film’s end is a very attractive element. And that the film takes time to develop the band’s relationship as it grows from a cacophonous mess to a truly rockin’ band is even sweeter. Check out this clip of the band during an early rehearsal.
So in the end, although advertised as a romantic drama, the film is less about romantic love and more about as yet unrealized dreams. For those who may have been turned off by the extreme surrealism of more internationally prominent Taiwanese art house fare by the likes of Tsai Ming-Liang (蔡明亮), you will no doubt find a lot to like. And if nothing else, the film deserves a great deal of admiration for perhaps single-handedly saving the Taiwanese film industry due to it’s huge appeal and even huger box office take. Let’s hear it for local cinema!!