Thursday, January 15, 2009

obsession of the week

Last night I had some people over to watch 海角七號 (aka Cape No. 7), a Taiwanese movie by new director Wei Te-Sheng.

The plot follows two tracks: The present day storyline involves a musician who failed to make it big in Taipei and is returning home to Hengchun (in southern Taiwan) to replace the local mailman. He is recruited into a local band formed specifically to serve as an opening act for a visiting Japanese singer, and eventually strikes up a relationship with the band's manager, a Japanese former model. At the same time, he discovers a packet of love letters which were written 60 years ago by a Japanese man to a Taiwanese woman, during the Japanese surrender of Taiwan to the KMT.

The movie came out in Taiwan last summer and promptly became the second-highest grossing movie there in history (behind Titanic). The DVD was released in December, just in time for me to buy it during my annual visit.

I must admit that my curiosity was piqued partially because the movie was banned in China due to its semi-positive depiction of the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, but it also won several Golden Horse awards and has been submitted to the Academy Awards as Taiwan's entry for Best Foreign Film.

Anyway, a couple post-viewing comments follow.

Of the group that watched the movie yesterday, everyone understood Mandarin fairly well. Most understood Taiwanese, and a few understood bits of Japanese. The movie was subtitled (not too horribly) in English, but I felt like understanding Taiwanese definitely contributed to greater enjoyment of the movie. Sometimes the Taiwanese expressions were significantly more colorful than the English translations, and some local flavor was lost even between Taiwanese and Mandarin. The dialogue rang true to me; even when it was crass it was authentically so.

I liked that the movie demonstrated the fluent Japanese of the older generation in Taiwan. My own grandparents are a perfect example; they all have cute Japanese nicknames and when they are together with their brothers and sisters, they speak mixed Japanese and Taiwanese. Their Mandarin is passable but awkward. That's Taiwan.

I thought the music in the movie was good. I did some research and found that the main character Aga was played by an actual musician, and several of the other actors also had real musical backgrounds, including the Japanese singer Atari. During the movie, I realized I had actually heard the last song already, while at karaoke in Taipei with my cousins, and I had liked it then too. I enjoyed the other (more upbeat) piece as well.

The movie was funny, but not in a slapstick way, and the characters were engaging. The 80-year old retired mailman was hilarious, and Aga's stepfather was also amusing (although he reminded me of some of my own annoying relatives, so sometimes it was harder to laugh). Often, modern Taiwanese movies take themselves too seriously, and this one did not.

My biggest complaint was that the backstory involving the love letters wasn't well developed and I wasn't sympathetic to the writer of those letters. I also disliked the cheesy music that played whenever the letters were read. The relationship between Aga and the Japanese manager Tomoko kind of came out of nowhere as well, but the two actors did a pretty good job of selling it towards the end, so that particular flaw wasn't as distracting.

The nicest surprise was the cinematography. Parts of Taiwan are really gorgeous but I never get to see them because I'm always in Taipei. Watching this movie made me want to make an effort to explore other parts of the island (while not being dragged there by my parents). I'm hoping that motivating effect lasts until next year.

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