Cape No. 7 is an excellent case study in the recent surge of local commercial hits in East Asian markets. Ostensibly a rom-com with music this film without major stars became the best-selling local film in contemporary Taiwanese cinema as audiences embraced its mix of genre and local history/nostalgia.
Writer-director Wei Te-Sheng had been working in the film industry since the early 1990s and in 1996 he had been assistant director on Edward Yang’s Mahjong. His early short films and his first feature had won prizes but not commercial audiences. It was a brave decision therefore to risk a relatively large budget (by Taiwanese standards) on Cape No. 7.
The film’s title refers to an address in rural Taiwan as written under the Japanese occupation of the island from 1895 to 1945 and Wei got the idea from a newspaper report about a (successful) attempt to deliver mail to such an address in contemporary Taiwan. In Wei’s story, the package sent from Japan refers to the parting of lovers in 1945 when the young man is forced to ‘return’ to Japan. Wei opens the film with the man’s voiceover expressing his emotions as he sails out of Taipei bound for Japan. The narrative returns to this flashback at key moments later in the film.
The temporary postman charged with delivering the package 60 years later is a ‘failed’ rock musician who is forced into temporary work in the small seaside town of Hengchun, a popular tourist resort on the southernmost tip of the island. Aga is in fact ‘coming home’ from Taipei. Meanwhile, a dispute between a large resort hotel and the local council leader means that a music festival on the beach can only take place if an ‘authentic’ Taiwanese band opens the show for a visiting Japanese pop star. Aga is dragooned into forming this band with a motley crew of young and old musicians, representing the diverse population of the region and different musical traditions and including ‘Taiwanese aboriginals’ and the various identities of Han Chinese, including Hakka and Hokkien. The differences between these groups are highlighted in the interactions between the various characters. Charged with getting the group together is a Mandarin-speaking Japanese woman, Tomoko – a former model who reluctantly takes on a kind of mother/schoolteacher role. Will Aga get together with Tomoko? What role will the memories of the lovers of 1945 play?
From the outline it’s clear that there is a potent mixture here of romance, music, comedy, the melodrama of families and the drama of competing interests of hoteliers, local councillors etc. Who was the girl left behind in 1945 and what became of her? How can the band become ‘authentic’ – what kind of music will they play?
Cape No. 7 was something of a surprise hit on a small scale but once it started to contact with local audiences it began to grow ‘legs’ staying in cinemas for three months and making 10 times the production cost. Later the film won several international prizes in East Asia and opened successfully in Hong Kong. A release in the PRC (mainland China) was delayed and eventually a severely cut version of the film was released. (It has been argued that the film was seen as ‘Japanised’.)
As a ‘local film’, I found the opening half hour intriguing but slightly difficult to follow as I didn’t easily pick up all the clues about the diversity of the population and the inter-family disputes that fuel the melodrama. This feeling continued for a while and I realised that I was engaged and appreciative of the filmmaking but still not totally understanding the complexities of the narrative. It was only in the last third of what is a long film (by rom-com standards) at 133 minutes that I felt fully in control of my own reading. Now, looking back over the narrative I can make sense of most of the actions and I have fully enjoyed the experience. I feel like I’ve learned a lot about Taiwanese culture as well as having a good time. The films mix of ingredients attracted what the Hollywood studios refer to as the four quadrants of young and old, male and female (the film was released by Disney in Taiwan).
There is an appeal to nostalgia, especially in relation to the period under Japanese occupation and the mix of experiences related to those times. Popular musical forms are popular throughout East Asia and these must also have been important (a soundtrack album and a very successful DVD release followed). Perhaps most important of all, here was a chance to celebrate the success of a local popular film after decades of domination by first Hong Kong and then Hollywood imports. Having broken records, Cape No. 7 was then overtaken by later local hits such as You Are the Apple of My Eye. ‘m grateful to Felicia Chan and the Chinese Film Forum in Manchester for introducing me to both films.
(Cape No. 7 is released on a Region 2 DVD by Flynn Entertainment.)