The box office success of 海角七號 (Cape No. 7) in 2008 and now 艋舺 (Monga) in 2010 is because they have brought to its viewers a sense of richness and reality never before seen in the Taiwanese movie industry. In a sign of an emerging powerhouse to rival the best in Asia, why is it that these movies are able to achieve such wide appeal? Why is it that the Hong Kong cinema industry continues to be stuck in the doldrums?
In 2008, 海角七號 became an instant success capturing the hearts of those who watched it by telling the tale of a wartime love torn after Chinese reoccupation of Taiwan from the Japanese, and how a present day relationship becomes entwined in this tale through the rediscovery of seven letters penned by the man repatriated back to Japan expressing his regret over leaving her behind.
Set in 台南 (southern Taiwan), this film is primarily about everyday life in country Taiwan. The story is of an everyday guy working as a local postman, then getting together to form a rock band and doing the impossible. The rich local flavour captured on the silver screen is a result of the choice of shooting location, the use of the local languages, and the portrayal of people in just basic everyday situations. People are able to relate to realness of the characters and enjoy it as an extension of their personal experiences.
They say all Taiwanese people love this movie. I couldn’t say that I loved this movie to the degree that they did, because I lacked the ability to completely relate to the subtleties of the movie’s nuances. What I mean is that there are issues, themes and dialogue that only local Taiwanese people will truly understand and appreciate. Having said that, the picturesque south, the portrayal of the humble country life and the story’s humanist themes are, despite the lack of understanding of the local culture and traditions, able to transcend local nuances to still bring hope and happiness to its viewers.
Now coming over to the movie that has taken Taiwan by storm this year thus far, on a theme that is vastly different to 海角七號, is the gangster tale of 艋舺. 艋舺 has had outstanding box office success, breaking through NTD1.1 billion (AUD37 million) and in the process became the highest grossing movie in Taiwan to date.
艋舺 is set in the place of the same name in Taipei, about a story of five guys (brothers [結拜兄弟]) and their lives as part of the Taiwanese triads in the eighties. On a deeper level, it is a story of what it means to be in a brotherhood (兄弟情誼) and the values that these people hold. It is a tale about the rules of being in a gang, of survival, selflessness, friendship, betrayal, fate, change, and 義氣 (I believe it’s more than loyalty).
The movie centres on one innocent boy’s move across to the dark side and the conflict between his values and those that are expected of him. Without spoiling the story, I was impressed at how the themes were explored without the need to descend into a movie of continuous and endless violence or becoming overly artistic. The ending is well delivered. I thought the success of this movie lies in how the ending helped to bring together the different elements, bringing empathy and tension together into one dramatic moment.
The fear of and treatment by the mainland Chinese in the movie may also be a reflection of what is happening in modern day society: the mixed feelings at the inevitability of the situation. The story is very real and the audience is able to relate to the struggle of the characters. I was impressed.
Now Showing: As at the date of this post, 艋舺 (Monga) is showing (with subtitles) in Sydney at Hoyts Broadway and Hoyts Chatswood Mandarin Centre.
I think the Taiwanese cinema industry is quickly maturing into a formidable force in the greater Asian market.