Movie review: Cape No. 7
My coworkers are not the only ones expressing this sentiment. All kinds of people who have never had any interest in the local film industry are ecstatic about what the success of Cape No. 7 means for local movies and are urging others to watch the film.
Some people had described the movie to me as a romance, others as a comedy. Both descriptions were correct; it's a many-threaded comedy with a serious love story as its main thread. After seeing the movie, I tried to think of some films that I could compare it to, but I couldn't think of any. The closest thing to this movie that I could think of are the locally produced idol dramas. Some of these dramas combine silly humor with bad acting and stomach-turning romance. Cape No. 7 does better than most of these dramas but not well enough to be a breakout movie for Taiwanese cinema.
A short plot summary without spoilers: The angry youth Aga has failed to become a rock star in Taipei, so he returns to his small hometown in South Taiwan near Kending. His stepfather gets him a job as a mailman, but Aga doesn't have the heart to put any effort into the job. His stepfather calls an audition for a warm-up band for a Japanese musician's concert which will be held in their small town (Hengchun). This leads a reluctant Aga to get involved in music again with a ragtag band and struggle against his angst to make good. Meanwhile a young Japanese woman struggles impotently to make sure Aga and the band are up to snuff in time for their performance.
The humor is silly, but audiences starved to see Taiwan in a commercial film have found it endearing. Two of the funniest characters are over 60 years old. The audience got a kick out of hearing them swearing in Taiwanese. The oldest character, Uncle Mao, brags about his musical skills saying "Shi*t, I'm a national treasure!" Uncle Mao probably got the most laughs, followed by the stepfather, Hong Guorong. The stepfather is the town council representative, a local boss, and he introduces himself saying "My name is Hong Guorong. My main hobbies are arguing, fighting, killing, and setting fires." This kind of line has led one of my coworkers to quote lines from the film. These two characters, along with many other elements of the films are things that are uniquely Taiwanese, and people are overjoyed to see Taiwan in a feel-good movie.
The age of these characters is significant. Unlike most idol dramas, all but one of the characters in this movie are adults. While the two leads of the movie are young, there are enough older characters in the movie so that it doesn't feel like it was make for young people only, and the movie has been relatively popular with adults in Taiwan.
The movie is partly a making-the-band film. The first song, an angsty alt-rock song sung in English, comes from Aga and his failed band. The music gets sunnier and better when the band is formed and begins practicing. There is another song in the movie performed by Shino Lin, a minor character in the movie who was formerly a pop star before she was responsible for a DUI fatality. The band's musical numbers supply the film with its greatest source of emotion, coming to a climax with their big performance. The making-the-band premise gives the opportunity for a lot of fun, and I would have been a lot happier with the movie if this element had been expanded and the love story removed. The movie clocks in at 133 minutes and it has a number of threads that go nowhere. It could have been a tighter funnier movie with a lot of editing.
The love story isn't any better than that of a TV drama. The romance begins with the boy and the girl hating each other. In the process of creating conflict and tension for the story, both behave so obnoxiously that you wonder why anyone would like either one of them. They become loathsome to watch, and when they eventually fall in love, you don't care anymore.
In addition to the plot as already summarized, the movie has a story from 1945. From begin to almost end, the movie is intercut with scenes of a Japanese man aboard a ship, reading love letters written to the woman he is leaving behind in Taiwan. This element is very "cinematic", a self-conscious attempt to give resonance to the love story in the movie and to the film as a whole. Some people love it, others find it gimmicky and poorly connected to the main plot. I read the comments of some Taiwanese moviegoers who found the love letters in the movie very touching. Personally, I thought these scenes were boring. I could barely force myself to read the subtitles. (This might have been influenced by the poor quality of the English subtitles. The subtitles in these scenes were strange. Poetic phrases would be followed by poor grammar. It's also worth noting that the subtitles in general are not very good.)
If there were a list of "Stuff Taiwanese people like", this film would be on it. I think this is mainly due to the dearth of Taiwanese commercial films. There have been very few Taiwanese films in recent years, and the ones that were made are mostly art films or idol films that are only of interest to young people. Cape No. 7 is unique, being a music-based romantic comedy with characters that appeal to the young and old, and with many elements of the film lovingly poking fun at Taiwanese identity. The film clearly can't match American films for production value. If you are just looking for a music-based romantic comedy, I would recommend a movie like "Music + Lyrics" (with Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore) long before I would recommend this movie. But if you are looking for a feel-good film with a humorous look at small-town Taiwan, then Cape No. 7 is your only bet.