Q&A: Wei Te-sheng

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In Wei Te-sheng's "Cape No. 7" -- only his second film as a director -- a motley crew of goofballs and eccentrics form a band to perform in their hometown's biggest gig. The film's colorful character sketches, grassroots sentimentality, local vernacular and light, cheery score so appealed to local tastes that the little film became a huge boxoffice hit, becoming the island's top-grossing 2008 film, surpassing even "The Dark Knight" and "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." It also went on to win the Grand Prize at the Taipei International Film Festival. The film's themes project how a lot of people in Taiwan are feeling about Wei these days -- he's a local hero. The dual love plots -- between a local rocker and an over-the-hill Japanese model and a Japanese teacher in colonial Taiwan and the local girl he abandoned at the end of World War II -- also struck chords with Taiwanese viewers pondering their history. Asia editor Jonathan Landreth spoke with Wei in the run-up to his trip to the Hong Kong Asia Film Financing Forum with his next movie, a film about Taiwan's indigenous people fighting the invading Japanese in the 1930s.

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Film Review: Cape No. 7

The Hollywood Reporter: Who is the hero of "Seediq Bale" and why is the story important today?

Wei Te-sheng: In the beginning, I learned about the "Seediq Bale" story, or the Wushe Incident, in elementary school. In 1997, I got a book that tells the whole story. I came to the conclusion that Taiwan has heroes. Seediq Bale is sort of your archetypal tragic hero, even though he's little known. The question is, why did the Taiwan people fight when they were bound to lose? Usually, when you see people fighting throughout history, they are fighting against slavery, they're fighting for the freedom of their bodies. So why fight if they were going to lose anyway? These indigenous people were looking for freedom of spirit, freedom of mind. They wanted something beyond this life. I was especially moved that they were so committed to this freedom of thought that if they weren't killed then they committed suicide rather than be held captive.

THR: With a reported budget of NT$300 million (in the neighborhood of "Cape No. 7's" boxoffice earnings of $9.3 million), your next film will be an epic by Taiwan standards. How will you use the money? What's your strategy to make sure this film succeeds?

Wei: Mostly, the money will be spent on production. There will be lots of indigenous actors. The budget will be roughly $10 million. We'll need many actors to create the cinematic effect of battle. The money will go to getting the right cameras and equipment to shoot the scenes properly.

THR: You've made only two films as a director. How come it took you almost 10 years since "About July" ("Qiyue Tian") to make "Cape No. 7"? What were you doing in that time?

Wei: I had a lot of work directing television and working as an assistant to director Chen Kuo-fu on "Shuang Tong" (Double Vision). Besides that, I spent loads of my time writing scripts and waiting.

THR: The success of "Cape No. 7" has cast a new light on Taiwanese cinema. Why do you think the film was a success?

Wei: We all believed that we had a really good script. We'd seen good scripts before, but this time we never compromised. We didn't believe in being limited by money. We didn't say, "Well, we don't have the budget for this." Instead, we figured out how to get the money to shoot it the right way. This was the model of the entire production. We believed the audience would feel our commitment. At the same time, a lot of things came together to help make the film a great success. I wanted to show that there could be a movie with a big boxoffice in Taiwan because I want the overseas market to be curious about our films, about this little homemade movie that could make a big bang. Lastly, I believe that the average audience in Taiwan identified with a lot of the characters. They noticed that their fellow audience members were moved by the characters, so there was a lot of connection among audience members themselves.

THR: Some observers say it will take some time before the industry can see the lasting effect of "Cape No. 7" on Taiwan cinema. What do you hope the film's legacy will be?

Wei: "Cape No. 7" is not a masterpiece by any stretch. What it did was act as a test balloon to see if there's a potential market for this kind of film. In the past, Taiwanese made movies with as little money as possible because they didn't feel it was possible to get their money back. But now, in 2009, there are a lot of films going into production spending a lot more money. They used to spend NT$1 million-NT$2 million ($30,000-$60,000), which is a very tiny budget, but now we're seeing NT$4 million ($120,000) budgets. This is still not great, but it's better. If anything, this film showed us the market is there and suggested the potential for more creative Taiwan films.

THR: If you're an Asian director making movies outside of India and China, chances are your home country is too small to support your films. How does this affect your creative process? How do you have confidence to keep going?

Wei: Thinking about the market when you're making a movie is sort of like dressing for other people, worrying about what others think you look like. How can you dress to impress other people? When I think about making a movie, I prefer to think about the story and whether I can make a good movie. After I've finished writing a movie, I'll consider some changes, thus consider the market a little, but very minimally. I think that even though I've had a blockbuster, it's a local Taiwan blockbuster. Now I'm confident about the local market, but outside Taiwan, I'm still getting to know the market. Audiences don't always know what they want. It's up to us filmmakers to show the audience the stories they want to see.

THR: What's the greatest challenge facing Asian and specifically Taiwan moviemakers today, and how's that different from 10 and 20 years ago?

Wei: People like listening to stories from the moment we're born to the moment we die. Films are always made to appeal to the people of a certain time and place. This was true 10 and 20 and 30 years ago in Taiwan. An early example is the director Hsing Lee, whose work captured small-town feelings. Similarly, Hou Hsiao Hsien's films capture the basics of society in a certain time and place. Movies will always capture the zeitgeist with the tradition.
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