Sunday, March 15, 2009

Big Hit Address

What makes a local hit movie in these parts?

I finally watched the much touted Cape No. 7 (Haijiao Qi Hao) last week, having received the boxed set from YesAsia a few days earlier. It's a gorgeously packaged boxed set, made to look like a real parcel (the original soundtrack CD set looks even more authentic as a parcel sent through the mail).

Now there have been all kinds of analyses of how Cape No. 7 managed to become a box-office juggernaut in Taiwan, like this one, the 7 reflections on Cape No. 7. One of the things told to me by a filmmaker friend in Taipei was that the film became a big hit partly because of word-of-mouth through blogs, and blogs are a big thing in Taiwan. And to have good word-of-mouth that spreads like wildfire, the film must have done something right too.

Just as a piece of commercial filmmaking, Cape No. 7 succeeds on many levels to satisfy the masses (the article I linked here is pretty definitive in its arguments). As far as the art of filmmaking goes, the movie leaves quite some to be desired. While the film tries to have two stories paralleling each other - the past story about a Japanese man who has to leave behind the woman he loves to return to Japan, and the present one about a failed musician who inadvertently falls in love with a Japanese woman - the two stories don't quite resonate against each other very well. And then there are the various loose ends that are left unsatisfactorily hanging. In the end, after building up our anticipation, the mystery of the woman at Cape no. 7 is never quite resolved.

But the film is very funny and entertaining, and the characters endearing, especially the elderly folks. The first comedic scene sets things up very nicely - the hilarious moment at the traffic lights with the temperamental traffic cop. The writing, the acting, the comedic timing - almost everything is perfect. After that, you just can't help but like the film.

Then, of course, there's the anticipation of the lead character finally unveiling his song, South Of The Border. And in between and after that are various other songs that are pretty good ones for the entire mood of the film, including a Kousuke Atari song which is unfortunately not on the OST. The pacing and the build-up go so well that you don't really care about all the loose ends and incompetent resolutions, because once the feel-good factor really kicks in in the last moments of the film, during the big concert finale, you just get swept along.

The only problem is that the humour, delivered mostly in the Hokkien dialect, will largely be lost in translation for non-speakers of the language. The English subtitles certainly don't do justice to the jokes, so western audiences would definitely not get them. So, the film may have been a massive hit in Taiwan, but I don't see the potential of it travelling outside of the region.

That's probably it. To make a local blockbuster hit, you have to have everything local audiences would identify with - language, mannerisms, situations, issues, locales - but that would also mean that your film would be pretty alien to foreigners. Rare is the case where a massive local hit is also a massive international hit. But then again, it might also depend on the genre, because Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon certainly didn't have any problem with both sides of the world. Was it the action? Or was it because it was a period film? Are contemporary films that much harder to deal with?

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