Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Cape No. 7 trumps international blockbusters

Last year’s Cape No. 7 surprised many in Taiwan by earning over US$15.6 million at the box office. By November 1st, it had already established itself as the second top grossing film on the island, behind Titanic. Made without any big name actors and using some non-actors, the film has not only become a commercial success but has also won its share of international awards. Not bad for a film that only cost US$1.6 million to make.

The movie interweaves two stories, one in present day Taiwan and the other, 60 years ago, immediately after Japanese occupation. One story is centered on the lost love between a Japanese teacher and a Taiwanese girl, the other focuses on a failed singer’s return to his hometown and the unexpected possibilities that unfold.

Cape No.7 appeals to a wide assortment of viewers, from the MTV-teen pop generation to the older crowd, some of whom still remember Taiwan under Japan. The success of the movie can be attributed to the way in which it recalls Taiwanese history and highlights the island’s unique pluralist society. The movie delves into Taiwanese identify by using Japanese, Mandarin and Taiwanese languages.

The film uses an effective mix of comedy and romance, with a serious tale of lost love at its center. In the Taipei Review, Peggy Chiao, a film critic and a director at the Graduate Institute of Filmmaking at Taipei National University of the Arts, attributes the film’s success to the feel good element. “The movie’s celebratory feel has long been missing in our society,” she said. A tale of lost love and new found love is a wonderful vehicle to give people hope.

The movie’s success is credited to director and screenwriter Wei Te-sheng, who worked for three years to finish the film, at one point borrowing US$937,000 to make sure Cape No. 7 was made according to his vision. It is a testament to Wei’s tenacity. “All the people around him discouraged him from spending so much on the movie. It’s too risky. But his insistence is the biggest reason for the movie’s success,” said Jimmy Huang, the film’s executive producer.

Wei also received help from the Government Information Office (GIO) that awarded him a grant of US$156,000. It is no secret that Hollywood dominates the global box office. From 1996-2006, Taiwanese films accounted for less than 2 percent of total ticket sales in Taiwan, with Hollywood movies taking more than 90 percent, and the rest going to movies from Hong Kong and China. Since 1990, the GIO has promoted local films by giving incentives, in the form of a set grant and/or government-guaranteed bank loans of up to US$3.1 million. The latter was used by Wei to secure US$469,000 from two local banks. The GIO also offered subsidizes to pay off the interest on the loans.

Last October, the GIO announced a new program that would offer extra funding if a movie earns more than US$1.56 million at the box office. Film directors can then apply for a subsidy equal to 20 percent of the total box office income. This could mean a windfall of at least US$2.8 million dollars for Wei’s next movie, Seediq Bale, a story about an aboriginal hero fighting the Japanese during Taiwan’s occupation. Slated to cost US$9.4 million to make, Wei has had the screenplay ready since 2000.

With the release and popularity of Cape No.7, other Taiwanese films have ridden on its coattails. When Taiwan-made Winds of September was released in June 2008, it was ignored by local audiences, however after Cape No. 7’s success, Winds of September was re-released in September 2008 with greater success. The current craze for Taiwanese movies also helped Orz Boyz, a movie about two mischievous boys from broken homes. With Cape No. 7 leading in the box office, “Taiwanese films accounted for 8 percent of the total ticket sales in the first 10 months of 2008,” according to the Taiwan Review.

Currently, Cape No. 7 is showing in four other Asian countries. It was released in Hong Kong and Singapore in November, Malaysia in December and China on Valentine’s Day. The Chinese authorities, considering the film to fuel Taiwanese nationalistic feelings and to be counterproductive to peaceful dialogue between the two sides, cut 30 minutes from China’s version.

According to the Taipei Times, the part that China found offensive was the portrayal of Taiwanese who had been subjected to “colonial brainwashing” by the Japanese. The two countries’ differing experiences with Japan might play a significant part in the film’s success. As much as the Japanese occupation of Taiwan was brutal, with 14,000 Taiwanese dying at Japanese hands, the Japanese also helped build the infrastructure of Taiwan’s rail, telecommunication and educational systems. So the country’s collective memory of the Japanese is not purely bad, but somewhat more bittersweet. While China’s experience was far more brutal, with resentment still lingering to this day.

Since much of the popularity of Cape No.7 is attributed to its unique Taiwanese flavor, it will be curious to know if the movie will appeal to Chinese audiences in the same way.

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About Me

The Press Division of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) in San Francisco represents the Government Information Office (GIO), Executive Yuan, Republic of China (Taiwan). GIO maintains nine Press Divisions in the United States, including the San Francisco office. The Press Divisions are in charge of promoting Taiwan's public relations and cultural exchanges. This blog is updated by the Press Division, TECO in San Francisco.