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Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Movie Cape No. 7 海角7号 & Thoughts About Taiwanese Identity & Singapore

Yesterday, I watched the hottest Taiwanese movie this year, Cape No. 7 (海角7号).  Quite nice and pleasant.  It is like what my Taiwanese friend, August, called very 台台,i.e., very Taiwanese.  The characters switched between Mandarin, Taiwanese (aka Minnan or Hokkien) and Japanese all the time - not unlike Singapore movies do between Mandarin, Hokkien, Singlish and English in a mixture that reflect an officialised "mother tongue" that is not really what our forefathers really speak, our dialect heritage, a bastardised local dialect and the language of our former colonial masters.
 
The story was about how an out-of-luck local boy who came home to the small town of Hengchun in southern Taiwan and got involved with an unlikely local band put together hastily by a Japanese girl stuck in Hengchun.  The story went on about how people in the small town was struggling to prove there is real local talent, and not everything resides with Taipei.  I guess this strikes a cord with many Taiwanese who in recent years feel a sense of loss with the rising power of China, of how the world has bowed to Beijing and of how Taiwanese feel that much of their talent is fast flowing overseas.
 
The frequent reference to the good local beaches, sea, climate and even wine, plus the interswitch between languages lead to what to many Taiwanese is very nostalgic and Taiwanese "乡土气息".  I can appreciate why the Taiwanese love this movie, perhaps in the same sense we Singaporeans appreciate some of our local movies - not just for the local smell and flavours but also of how we feel a sense of loss in a world of globalisation.  Increasingly, the Taiwanese, whether or not they support KMT or DPP, see themselves as Taiwanese first and then ethnic Chinese.  Almost no one wants unification with China, at least not with a communist China.  This is also why movies that make them feel Taiwanese appeal to most of them.
 
There is also the Japanese theme and related subplots in the movie.  Firstly, the local band was rushing for a beach concert by a Japanese superstar.  I wonder if this is linked to a respect the Taiwanese have for Japan as a "metropole", and Taiwan as, unfortunately, a kind of sideplay to greater regional centres. 
 
Taipei under Chiang Kai Shek was once the metropole of overseas Chinese but have since lost that role with the rise of China.  But what comes in play now?  Since Beijing and Shanghai cannot be the cultural metropole of Taiwan due to the divergent politics, then Japan, the former colonial master, has assumed that kind of role for the Taiwanese.  What then is Singapore's cultural metropole?  London, Shanghai or NYC?  Do we have one at all?
 
It is also interesting how the local Hengchun people in the movie scoff at Taipei snobs and outside people (I presume from Taipei) buy up local beaches but feel warm towards a bigger power located further away.  But isn't that's how we feel towards our neighbours and how we feel warmer towards even much larger but further away Australia and UK who kind of "neutralise" the pressure we get from Malaysia and Indonesia?
 
Secondly, the modern day plot of the movie runs in parallel with romantic letters written by a Japanese school teacher to his Taiwanese sweatheart after the end of WWII.  He was among the hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians who lived in Taiwan during the first half of the 20th century and forced to return to Japan after WWII.  Taiwan became Japanese territory after the First Sino-Japanese War of 1895. 
 
Contrary to what many Chinese nationalists would like to assert, Japanese rule in Taiwan was to some people quite benevolent after the initial years of pacification.  The Taiwanese hardly rebelled and were treated as loyal subjects of the Japanese state.  In their disappointment over the existing state of political affairs in which Taiwan has been shorn of international recognition, some Taiwanese looked back nostalgically at Japanese rule as a golden era.
 
Whilst the subplot about the Taiwanese-Japanese romance may warm of the hearts of many Taiwanese, I can imagine how mad Mainland Chinese or pro-China overseas Chinese would felt at this romantic portrayal.  They probably call those characters 汉奸 or traitor.  But sometimes I feel that whatever political view one may have, perhaps it is more useful to seperate political views and examine the complex realities of history and of national identities.
 
 

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