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Aga, a band singer, returns to Hengchun with frustration. Tomoko is a Japanese model assigned to organize a local warm-up band for the Japanese super star beach concert. Together with other five ordinary Hengchun residents who were not expected to be great or anything, they formed an impossible band.
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On the eve a local summer festival, the local unofficial head (Ju-Lung Ma) of a small Taiwan town has a brainstorm: increase tourism and town morale (and his power base with it) by creating a local band to play opposite a Japanese pop star signed to perform at the festival. Luckily for him, a rag tag group of musicians from angry singer Aga (Van Fan) to a 10-year-old piano player (Joanne Yang) and an 80-year-old bass player (Johnny C.J. Lin) have been drawn together by fate and chance, waiting for the opportunity to seize their moment.
If writer-director We Tei-sheng’s “Cape No. 7” sounds like a little bit of a prime time soap opera, that’s because it kind of is, with just a bit of the underdog sport film thrown in though the competition in this case is more internalized. Still, the most popular Taiwan-produced film in history must have some redeeming features beyond just local populism, right?
Actually, it does a lot of the time.
There is an interesting theme of colonization and its effects at play throughout “Cape No. 7” – particularly the people left behind and how well, or not, they integrate into their adopted culture. It’s most obvious in the reaction to the Japanese still living on the island, like Dada’s mother, as old resentments from World War II and Japanization still linger.
But there’s more to it than that, as the undercurrent of resentment among various native inhabitants towards the Chinese settlers of Taiwan that have marginalized them and their culture propels a great deal of the plot. Wei handles his theme with a great deal of subtlety and skill, treating it fairly even-handedly, imbuing his oppressed minorities with pathos without allowing them to be perfect or entirely innocent.
Unfortunately a lot of that strength wilts in the face of Wei’s occasionally formulaic plot and often overly light delivery. He has a good eye for character but his story structure and large ensemble are more ambitious than he’s entirely capable of handling. Part of that is an effect of his small budget, but he really is trying to work over his head here and it’s occasionally evident. It doesn’t help that a film ostensibly about music has such a dreadful pop soundtrack full of Caribbean drum rhythms and bad synthesizers that are horribly out of place compare to the scenes they’re placed over.
That said, it does have moments of genuine charm, especially in the first half as Wei slowly introduces his characters to the idea of a forming a regional band. Usually small, unforced moments like an elevator of older man unconsciously dancing to a young girl’s iPod.
Unfortunately, as good as some of the character work is, it can also be a let down, especially when involving the two leads, Aga and Tomoko (Chie Tanaka) who’s emotions are so internalized they’re dramatically conflict ends up reduced to angst. Often quite dull angst. Why is Aga so angry all the time? I don’t know, so I don’t care.
Still, as clumsy as it can be – and it can be awful clumsy – there is a fair bit to like about “Cape No. 7.” Most of the characters are well thought out and designed. And as obvious as the arc of the plot is, it’s still often quite satisfying when it gets where it needs to go.
“Cape No. 7” is certainly no masterpiece – by design or not it plays a lot like an independent drama circa 1990 – but it shows a lot of promise. I for one am curious to see what Wei can do once he has a real budget to work with.