Cape No. 7 (Taiwan 2008)

Aga (Fan Van) escapes to the beach to try to clear his head. This is one of several beautiful images of the local environment.

Aga (Fan Van) escapes to the beach to try to clear his head. This is one of several beautiful images of the local environment.

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.

Outline

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?

Commentary

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. I’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.)

Trailer:

Millennium Mambo (France/Taiwan 2001)

Vicki and Hao-hao. Note the colour palette with the 'glowing' white bra and the shallow focus.

I first got interested in the ‘New Taiwanese Cinema’ director Hou Hsiao-hsien back in the 1980s when he was making films that explored the recent political history of the island through a series of family melodramas. I remember taking a friend to the NFT to see a new film by Hou in the London Film Festival. I think it must have been Daughter of the Nile (1987) which tells a tale about young people in Taipei. I remember that my friend was not impressed and I found it difficult to defend the film. I thought about that experience again when I saw Millennium Mambo. I realise now that I was unprepared for Daughter of the Nile which in some way was a precursor of Millennium Mambo.

As the title suggests, this is a film set around the millennium, told by a young woman from ten years in the future so it’s a bit weird to watch it now. There is little plot. Vicki (Shi Qi) is a stunningly beautiful young woman who appears to have drifted into a slacker mode living with her boyfriend Hao-Hao in Taipei. They fall out and she has a relationship with Jack, an older man who is some kind of criminal, works in a bar as a hostess and at one point travels to Hokkaido with two brothers who have a Japanese mother.

The film has four formal elements that are perhaps more important than the narrative content itself. Firstly, the experience of watching the film is ‘disturbed’ and perhaps made more dream-like, through a dislocation of the voiceover and the image track. The narrator tells us about events which are not on screen at that moment but which will appear some time later. This sense of confusion is compounded by a camera that is fixed much of the time and peers into the couple’s apartment, into bars and restaurants etc. so that much of the ‘action’ is in long shot unless characters move up close to the camera. Further confusion comes from the deliberate lack of focus at the start of some scenes so that the screen shows only shimmering colours which move behind a distorting lens. Even within scenes, the field of focus is so shallow that characters seem trapped in a woozy environment.

The shimmering colours are also present through deliberate design of costumes, lighting and interior decor. The camera shoots through flimsy curtains, hanging mobiles of reds and greens and blues, window frames and doorways. Vicky wears bright reds or white. The lighting in clubs and bars (and seemingly the apartment) uses ultraviolet (?) so that, for instance, Vicky wears a white bra or tee-shirt that literally glows in the dim surroundings. Finally, running throughout much of the film is a music track of ambient/techno music, mainly by Lim Giong. As you can tell, this isn’t my scene and I don’t know quite how to describe it!

This clip from the opening of the film demonstrates the hypnotic quality of the camerawork, setting, voiceover and music:

We do learn a little about Vicky’s past – she and Hao-hao came to Taipei from Keelung – and Vicky makes a second visit to Japan when Jack travels there attempting to solve a problem in his criminal activities. The Japanese sequences are visually different, mainly because the camera strays outside onto the streets (and peers at the rushing trains – an Ozu moment perhaps?). The town in Hokkaido is holding a film festival and there are many beautiful posters of classic and not-so-classic films (Jean Gabin v. Charles Bronson?). In Taiwan all the ‘action’ is claustrophobic and every shot is of an interior – or perhaps the balcony of the apartment.

I guess that Hou’s films are the ultimate test of cinephilia. Whereas in his earlier historical melodramas there was something for the average art cinema fan to chew on, in these films the pleasures on offer are limited to formal questions and teases about questions of narration and narrativity. The film seems to be a challenge to viewers. Does it have a metaphorical purpose? I’m not sure. (Hou himself has commented that young people, especially young women, seem to live their lives much faster now. Perhaps the film is a reflection on time – as the young woman sees it?)  At times I was bored and frustrated and then angry with the abusive Hao-hao. Vicky is a seductive creation (seemingly on the verge of smoking herself to death) and I probably enjoyed the scenes with Jack the most, although the trips to Japan were also inviting. Shi Qi is undoubtedly a star (she also appears in Hou’s later film, Three Times) and I was interested to find out more about her from various fansites (such as shuqi.org). I hadn’t realised that she started in soft porn modelling and films in Hong Kong and that at one point she was in the running for the role in Crouching Tiger that went to Zhang Ziyi. I hope she gets challenging roles in the future.

I think that I would like to show this film to film students in order to discuss how Hou creates its hypnotic feel combining music, images and editing. The cinematography is by Mark Lee (aka Lee Pin-bing) whose work I now realise I have seen several times before (and look forward to on several upcoming movies). All the time in Millennium Mambo I was thinking about Wong Kar-wai’s Fallen Angels (HK 1996) which shares not only elements of the visual style, but also allusions to youth culture and criminality. I notice now that Mark Lee was an assistant to Chris Doyle on that shoot and that he later shot Wong’s In the Mood For Love. There is an interesting blog on the audio work in Millennium Mambo here.

The comparison with Wong Kar-wai is interesting. Wong’s films are for me more entertaining and Hong Kong is a more familiar milieu. Hou seems more for cinephiles in some of the films. However, I’ve got a couple more of Hou’s films to view in the next few months and I’m aware of the cult status that Millennium Mambo seems to be developing from the YouTube comments. You can follow our other Hou entries via this tag.

Le Voyage du ballon rouge (France/Taiwan 2007)

Fang Song and Simon Iteau in Le Voyage du ballon rouge

I saw this in the cosy and comfortable seating of the Old Town Hall, Gateshead — the temporary home of Tyneside Cinema — at the end of a very hard day. As a result, I found it hard to concentrate on a film which requires proper attention. But I struggled on with determination because the film had been recommended. I’m glad I did because I enjoyed the experience — although at the end I wasn’t sure I’d understood everything. Fortunately, a group of young Chinese behind me were talking after the screening and I picked up some ideas and later I trawled a few websites. Gradually it started to make sense.

There isn’t a lot of plot. A single mother, Suzanne (Juliette Binoche) lives in a two story apartment in Paris with her young son. She advertises for a childminder so that she can work as the narrator on a Chinese puppet show. The childminder turns out to be a film student from Beijing, the quiet and implacable Song, who seems to be creating her own version of the classic children’s film Le ballon rouge (France 1956). Song helps Suzanne with some translating and also with the transfer of some home movies to a digital format. Other than that there are some journeys around Paris and Suzanne falls out with her lodger, an old friend of her (estranged ?) husband’s who lives in the downstairs rooms.

I guess what kept my interest was the contrast between the quiet Song and her charge, Simon, and the much noisier Suzanne and also a sense of mystery about exactly what was going on. There was a very slight sense of the menace of Hidden in the scenes both in the apartment and around Paris. Does the boy actually see a red balloon? Is it following him? I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen the original film — perhaps it has some of this mystery?

Because it is directed by Hou Hsaio-hsien, a disciple of Ozu Yasujiro, the film invites the audience to spot Ozu traits. I can report that there are several train trips which I enjoyed and that it is possible to summon up some Ozu-like compositions in the tiny apartment. Unlike the minimalist style of Japanese interiors, however, Suzanne’s apartment is cluttered and cramped with piles of books and eventually the piano from downstairs. Most of the time the camera remains static, focused on the table which seems to be at the centre of the life of the room. After a while, I began to think about Michael Snow’s famous avant-garde film Wavelength (in which the camera very slowly zooms/tracks in towards a photograph on the wall of a warehouse floor). I became fascinated with the detail of the room and the small movements of characters in it.

I’ve looked at several websites and blogs on the film and they point towards other familiar traits from Hou such as the cultural differences between China and France — the Chinese film student attempts to recreate a French film, the French actor narrates a Chinese puppet play etc. There is also a sense of history with the past (the original film, the family’s history on film) bleeding into the present. Many critics and audiences have apparently been bored rigid and some are outraged by being seduced into seeing an ‘art film’ like this. I found it restful and intriguing.