Friday, February 20, 2009

Reasonable Review of Cape No. 7 from Chinese State Media

This review of Cape No. 7, the hit Taiwanese movie, appeared the other day in several state media organs, including Xinhua. An excerpt:
After years of actively building a single national identity, many people in the mainland may have lost sight of the vastness and diversity of their country and its people.

No wonder many mainland viewers were confused about the real message delivered in Cape No. 7.

The nostalgic perception of Japan's occupation of Taiwan proved to be the biggest surprise. With the plot centered on a Japanese man's love letters to a girl in Taiwan, the film fails to strike the nationalistic note typically found in mainland movies about the war.

The film exposes subtleties in Taiwan attitudes toward this period of history, which people on both sides of the strait commonly regard as a time of patriotic fervor.

Audiences may have to accept a reality that people on the two sides have different experiences and therefore, different perceptions.

Cape No. 7, a light comedy, offers an unexpected insight into the attitudes and experiences that shape today's Taiwan through the vivid portraits of some common people: an unsuccessful young singer in the metropolis of Taipei; a Japanese girl who stays in Taiwan to pursue her dream of being a model, but never starts a real career; a traditional musician with no audience; a community-loving politician who despairs at seeing young people leaving the small cape town.

Its box office success on the island shows it has struck a chord with the enthusiasm of islanders to realize a common identity and a profound concern that they may be losing their heritage as their culture is challenged by outside fashions and influences.

The mainland release of the movie offers mainland audiences an opportunity to learn what Taiwan people think. Cape No. 7 may also triumph that it diverts mainland attention from the modern Taipei and its celebrity culture to a grassroots Taiwan.
That second to last paragraph is as subtle a message as the movie itself.


Arthur Dent said...

Remarkable. Also this comment:

"Audiences may have to accept a reality that people on the two sides have different experiences and therefore, different perceptions."

... seems almost revolutionary.

Dixteel said...

It's interesting. From what I heard, China has recut the film. Leaving out parts that contains course language and Japanese language.

But since many in China already watched the pirated version...the recut probably doesn't matter and I suspect not a lot of them is going to watch it in theatre. It's also worth to know quite a lot of them hate the film.

This paragraph is indeed interesting, although I am not sure but I think it's only partially right:
"Its box office success on the island shows it has struck a chord with the enthusiasm of islanders to realize a common identity and a profound concern that they may be losing their heritage as their culture is challenged by outside fashions and influences."

I intuitive feel there is something wrong with that statement but I can't really pinpoint it.

I think for more than 100 years, Taiwanese culture are constantly "challenged" by outside ones. The Impirial Japanese era, the Chinese KMT, American McDonald (and European cookies)...etc. Since we all live through the KMT era and it's well known that KMT systemetically wiping out culture that was already there, the last few sentences are not "concerns" but "reality". Indeed we have lost much heritage and indeed Chinese culture has already dominate in Taiwan. Just look around, and switch between some TV channels in Taiwan.

Of course Taiwan, as any other nations, has constant influx of different ideas and fashion from outside. But those influence won't really destroy heritages, instead they should enrich it. The lost of heritage is the result of systemetical attemp of KMT to wipe out Taiwanese culture and history.

Only recently do we have a renaissance in Taiwanese culture and this film is partially a result of it. So actually we are in the process of "recovering" our heritage and common identity.

Anonymous said...

"I think for more than 100 years, Taiwanese culture are constantly "challenged" by outside ones."

I think this is where your trouble lies.

Cultures are always adapting and changing to bring meaning to new events and ideas. Rather than imagining a defined "culture" with set parameters in a particular time frame, it would be more accurate to imagine all cultures as and endless series of mimicry and re-translation. There is no culture which is independent of this phenomenon of taking an image or idea from "outside" the community, copying it and re-projecting it is a way which is meaningful to the community and thus making it its own. This is a process that keeps resonating like video feedback.

Rather than seeing Taiwanese and Chinese as an essentialized culture "under attack/threat" as the article suggests, concentrate on the structures within which the change occurs. Look at the entities that shape how the "inside" group and helps assign value to social activity. This would mainly be the state.

Therefore, everything that is happening within the structure of the community in Taiwan will hold symbolism and meaning particular to the experience. Take the "American" game of baseball. People in Taiwan identify with baseball and it holds meaning to the Taiwanese community and that symbolism is particular to their socio-political experience. Baseball IS Taiwanese culture. It may look like the "American" game, but the manner in which it is projected back is Taiwanese. Hence, that is one example why I avoid using the term "Chinese culture" when talking about Taiwan.

Anonymous said...

Well the review is a ballsy spin, using the reality of a Taiwanese identity, with its difference from the Chinese one to showcase Chinas cultural diversity and thus the motherlands greatness. I guess it took them quite some time to come up with that.

Richard said...

Nice response Dixteel. Totally agree with your last part on how Taiwan is currently trying to recover and redefine their own identity.

vin said...

Dixteel, what would some other landmark works in this renaissance be? This post and your comment really caught my eye, because I just finished writing why I think there’s no real cultural efflorescence going on in Taiwan, and that there won’t be one, either, until someone takes the time to figure out how to write (and then writes) a novel of high literary quality that has popular appeal:

Renaissances certainly do look backwards and seek to recover heritage. But they look forward even more, and with great optimism and confidence that is usually born at least partly of fresh universalist understandings. I don’t see the optimism, the confidence, or nearly widespread enough universalist understanding/belief yet in Taiwan for a renaissance to be underway. I would love to be wrong on this, and if you feel I am, I’d like to know more, but…

The Nazis focused pretty intently on recovering heritage, but their rule produced almost no art beyond a few gargantuan buildings. (They reversed a Buddhist symbol, too.) Indeed, most writers, painters, and filmmakers fled Germany if they could. I don't mean to compare Taiwan today and Germany in the 1930s; I just wanted to cite the most vivid example of how recovering heritage does not, by itself, even come close to constituting a renaissance.

Thomas said...

"The Nazis focused pretty intently on recovering heritage, but their rule produced almost no art beyond a few gargantuan buildings. (They reversed a Buddhist symbol, too.) "

Vin, please correct me if I am wrong. I am by no means an expert on this subject.

It seems to me that your example is not really apt. I have always heard/read that much of the culture that the Nazis were trying to retrieve was a construct built around a past that had never existed. This false past was developed to provide a foundation for the grand floraison that was supposed to accompany the rise of the Third Reich.

This, to me, seems more like a rebranding than a renaissance. And, as in all markets where a brand has been newly introduced, the foundation for that brand can be unstable.

Dixteel said... my opinion, the Nazi wasn't recovering heritage. They are "fabricating" one for the National Socialism purpose. In another word, creating "myth" etc so the population can support their government's means and ends. This book "The Road to Serfdom" talk in length about the gradual transitions going on in Germany starting from Bismark's time to WW2. It's worth a read if you want to know in detail what I was talking about.

It's quite different from what's going on in Taiwan. Taiwanese history has been wiped out by KMT. In school, our children spend in length studying Chinese history, culture and geography. But they have a lack of understanding of Taiwanese history, geography and culture...etc. Taiwanese history and geography only consist a small fraction of school materials. Furthermore, the Taiwanese history taught in school lacks facts and are twisted by KMT in order to make connection between Taiwan and China, and to make KMT looks like Taiwan's savior...etc...basic to serve KMT's own ends. It's the same as what Nazi did. KMT even fabricate history only until recently has been proven to be false...(one example is a legend of a Chinese guy Wu Fong, who sacrifices himself to create harmony between Chinese and aboriginal...complete fabrication).

Just to give you my personal experience. I was totally confused about Taiwan's history etc. For example, I thought during WW2 Taiwan was on Chinese side when in fact it's on the Japanese side, and was indeed attacked by the US bombers during the war. I only get some sort of clarification after I saw bullet holes from aircraft attacks on an old abandoned water tower at my father's home town, and listened to my father's explanation, when I was about 15. But even then my understanding of Taiwanese history was very limited. I have to read books and online articles later to get more info about Taiwan. I only start to have a good understanding after I entered university. Before then the only thing I have good understanding of are Chinese 3000 or so years of history and Chinese geography.

So in a sense, you can actually compare KMT to Nazi (maybe that's too much, but there are indeed many similarities), and only recently does Taiwan starts to awaken from this fabricated Chinese "heritage" of KMT. But even now, you can still find people in Taiwan who has no clue and still live in this dream world of KMT.

But you have a good point there, Taiwan of course should not go into the Nazi and KMT path. It's something Taiwanese has to watch out for as well.

Perhaps I have used too strong a word "Renaissance." Perhaps I should use "Taiwan centric localization movement." Even if it's a Renaissance it can only be at the beginning, and it's hard to tell at this time if it will continue. So to the question in your blog: "Will a cultural efflorescence follow Cape No. 7, even though no monumental Taiwanese figure has called for a new art in a new land?" I have no idea...because we are only at the beginning and there is no telling what will happen next. Especially now KMT retook control of the government, it's hard to tell. One thing for certain though, Cape No. 7, although an extremely success film, cannot be the pinnacle of the movement. If the movement continues, even better stuffs will come out for sure.

I agree with you that a "Renaissance" doesn't just look into the past, but into the future as well. And I think the recent Taiwanese movement has this sense of looking into the future. What kind of society would and should Taiwan become...etc...before a lot of Taiwanese have "China centric" thinking, but now probably more Taiwanese have "Taiwan centric" thinking and if that's the case, more people will look into Taiwan's future, not China's future. And that would indeed make the movement into a full Renaissance.

But to answer your first question...I have no idea |o| I don't think there are any more big "landmarks" one beside Cape No. 7. But definitely many different people are contributing to this movement piece by piece. Some are researching history, publish different books, musics etc. There are a lot of heroes behind the scenes out there. And who knows...someone might be making the next giant landmark bigger than C#7 right now...

vin said...

Dixteel and Thomas,

I concede to your arguments that my reference to the Nazis was off. Your points are good ones, I think.

I think my chief point remains, though, no? Let me see if I can restate it more effectively here: a renaissance, though it does focus on recovering the past and on integrating it into the present, already assumes identity to be stable enough, and thus is able to and indeed does focus on universalism as well as on cultural/civic/national identity -- and it focuses on a dynamic interplay between the two.

I certainly agree that Taiwan coudl enter this stage later. My question i why not much sooner than "later"? Why would such a Renaissance would not get underway right away after a Taiwanese writer took the time to write and publish a quality, mass-appeal novel or collection of short stories about elite cops here? The novel could include the various points of view on Taiwan's past and go beyond them, too.

Cape No.7 did some going beyond, and I think that was one of its strengths. But it didn't acknowledge all the points of view, and that, I feel limited its strength. To acknowledge is not to agree; I am certainly not saying all points of view have equal claim on the truth. But that all feel (no matter hwo wrongheadedly) that they do have a legiitimate claim is a truth that is avoided only at the cost, I think of further stalemate and probably, in the end, serious violence.

I may be completely wrong, but my best guess is that the cirppling "identities" issue indeed will end in violence unless something big appears that lights a way beyond it all. My guess is that the "something" needs to be a book -- not a light movie story that whizzes by people's eyes - but a gritty, well-written page-turner that people just can't put down and that they see their whole society and parts of themselves in.

I've often adopted a tone here in the past of being sure I'm right. I'm trying hard to not do that anymore. So I just plaintively ask: What could do more than a book like this? And why, despite all the obstacles, doesn't someone write one?

Thanks for your responses.

Anonymous said...

I think a major problem had been the politicization of essentialized identities in Taiwan. Even the concept of the 4 ethnic groups may do more harm than good. Different groups have sought to define and redefine Taiwanese culture to reflect their political agenda. Each trope collapses under the weight of its own construction.

The indigenization movement of Taiwanese culture already has vast amounts of literature and cultural production. It has continually run into opposition as it has attempted to ignore or over play any segment of society and play it as a caricature. This is evident in many of the tourist stops that sprang up during the Chen administration.

A great example that comes to mind might be the "Old Train Station" in 三義. The locals refurbished the train station to resemble how it may have looked during the Japanese era, and then constructed a type of facsimile "old town" street from the era where tourist can buy refreshments and souvenirs and feel like they are walking through an authentic town from the area's hay day in the 1920's and 1930's.

What is really striking is that the locals did not produce a restoration of their town, but rather they produced the fetishized rustic fantasy of their own impression of what visitors will want to see and buy when they come for the "local" flavor, rather than simply allowing the visitors to come and see the locals. The locals have chosen to root the symbols of their culture in Japanese colonial Taiwan for commoditization while finding in the process of its creation. Thus, producing something brand new and uniquely Taiwanese.

One of the most important factors will be to incorporate Waishengren into the indigenization process by validating their experience as a Taiwanese experience. Their existence as a community is predicated on the Taiwan experience. Now, under the type of thinking behind Taiwan's current ethnic policies, to prove they are Waishengren, they would need to dress in Waishengren costume, prove they can speak Waisheng language, produce Waisheng material culture, live in their traditional communities and dance Waisheng dances. This would at least apply the same cultural standards used for Aborigines.

My point is simply that attempting to define Taiwanese culture based on selected construction from selected times, which are chosen to be more authentic than other periods, and then fiercely defended against "outside threat", ignores the fact that Taiwanese culture (like all cultures) is a work in progress that is more defined by the schemas set by government structures and peer interaction, than vertical descent from parents to children. When people attempt to define and authenticate a culture and deny that it is alive and changing, they are attempting to incorporate that culture into their own civilizing project where it can be dominated, controlled and fit into a larger scheme.

The fact that things are going on within the boundaries of Taiwan and the motivations, punishments, rewards and pathways to achieve one's goals in Taiwan are unique to the structure, Taiwanese culture is alive and well in our very participation.

Dixteel said...

"I may be completely wrong, but my best guess is that the crippling "identities" issue indeed will end in violence unless something big appears that lights a way beyond it all. My guess is that the "something" needs to be a book -- not a light movie story that whizzes by people's eyes - but a gritty, well-written page-turner that people just can't put down and that they see their whole society and parts of themselves in."

Hmm...actually I am not totally sure what you are what way will identity issue cause violence?

Indeed...perhaps books are something that can help a lot. Movies might just be like those bullet holes. It won't mean much unless people start to think and research after the inspiration of the movie. But I think it might not be just one book, but many of them. And some will have bigger impact to certain people than other...etc. Those books don't even have to be new one, or even from Taiwan. For example, "Formosa Betrayed" by George Kerr made a huge impact on many...

But if indeed someone can write something that inspire many...that would be wow...the person's name will definitely last through Taiwan's history. But usually when the author wrote books they don't even know what kind of impact it will make. Like the author of the Wealth of Nation, Adam Smith...I think he said in a letter to a friend he is simply contemplating this issue for fun. And he probably don't know what a huge impact the book made through out history after his death.

Another medium I think people haven't really explored in terms of "Taiwanese Renaissance" are video games. A lot of "serious" games Taiwan made are based on Chinese culture and history. It's like...well...Chinese can make these kind of games as well. And a lot of game developers are just looking at Chinese market...and intentionally making Chinese games. But if one of the guy in the industry understand Taiwan and did what the Director of C#7 did, and make a game that is truly inspirational to Taiwanese, maybe that game will sell extremely well in Taiwan as well...who knows.

vin said...

“… end in Violence”: civil conflict or war with China. Seems to me that very hard economic times (but not only this), perhaps prolonged, greatly heightens these possibilities in several ways.

I’m talking purely about fiction, not other kinds of books. Or maybe a mass-appeal collection of narrative-based personal essays. Not scholarly, not theoretical. But of course, aware of the history (histories): knowing.

The book (Or yes, books!) would need to portray all groups in society with sympathy; as Anonymous above highlighted and expressed well, all need to be included -- all need to have their experience validated. Validating experience is a wholly different thing from “creating identity.” And ironically (especially for Taiwan), it is precisely the means by which stable identities can be created. It’s sort of like happiness: when you try for it, it slips through your fingers; when you’re busy fulfilling your existence through doing things, happiness is an often-available byproduct. Neither happiness nor stable identity can be gotten by trying to acquire them – by making them goals.

I don’t mean that such a book would need to obscure or gloss over ugly truths. I mean that good writers make such truths resonant and acceptable to most by embedding them not foremost in historical narratives, but in human narratives. The historical narratives are there, and they are important, but it is the human narratives – the felt process of watching characters develop – that have the decisive effect on people. And anything programmatic about the unfolding/development of character (in the central characters, anyway), reduces, injures, or even destroys that effect. Writers have to be willing to let their characters and story go AWOL from the political/philosophical/moral agenda the writer may have, as Tolstoy did in “Anna Karenina,” a work he originally intended to be a condemnation of adultery.

This is a pretty analytical blog as blogs in Taiwan go. And analysis is essential for better understanding. But as the saying goes “analysis is paralysis” if it is not coupled with strong awareness of the humanity all hold in common; it will lead only to mechanical actions that replicate and deepen problems. It’s not merely more people knowing more about the past that will make a difference; it’s what they do with that knowledge in the present and future that will. And if they (enough people, anyway) don’t act from a sense of our common humanity – if they’re not willing to validate the experience of all groups --, nothing will change for the better. And a related point is that most people don’t analyze that much – and so won’t read straight, factual historical narratives; most people simply are not going to choose to reflect and thus grow in awareness if they are not moved by narratives that go beyond agendas. Without the human elements only fiction can provide, they’ll just continue to be manipulated, in varying degrees depending on the person, by those who control media.

People increase in awareness not by identifying with heroes, identities, or ideas, but by identifying with shared humanity and with PROCESSES of understanding. Identifying merely with understandings is never enough. That kind of identification only leads to everyone trying to beat opposing understandings over the head.

So again, I think a work of fiction about an elite, anti-gang crime unit, would make a huge difference here. I can’t offhand, think of a historical example of where a single such work of fiction affected a whole people in the way I’m talking about here, but, too, I’m not aware of any developed nation/culture that has gone so long without producing its own mass-appeal work of fiction. I think the effect would be profoundly positive, and probably decisive, if such a book were produced. The long-time lack creates a hunger that people finally forget they have – until it can be satisfied. Then they deliriously sate that hunger -- like they did in flocking to “Cape no.7.”

Those are my best understandings. Of course they’re fallible.

I like your idea about video games. I think they would be a great thing. Why isn’t anyone making them, especially now in this economy? So many who could make such games have time on their hands.