Kano: Film Review

 An emotion-stirring, facts-defying, ideologically blind, underdogs'-triumph crowd-pleaser.

Taiwanese director Wei Te-sheng continues to probe his country's history as a Japanese colony by looking at a real-life multicultural baseball team which took Japan's national high-school championships by storm in 1931.

"All psyched up and no signs of giving up": so goes a radio commentator's description of the scrappy Taiwanese multicultural baseball team seen braving hurt and humiliation to defeat their more established opponents at the annual Japanese high-school championships in 1931. The line used here to articulate Kano's protagonists might serve as well as a summary of the film itself: casting aside any pretence to account for the complexity of colonial politics or the nuances of human behavior, producer-screenwriter Wei Te-sheng and his first-time director Umin Boya have delivered a relentlessly feel-good, united-we-stand crowd-pleaser about racial harmony in Japanese-occupied Taiwan that would make, say, the similarly anti-segregationist Remember the Titans look like a piece of gritty realism in comparison.

Based on the real-life story of an underdog team from the southern Taiwanese city of Chiayi which took on and defeated many an established outfit in its first-ever appearance in a major championship on Japanese soil in 1931, Kano - the title of which alludes to the abbreviated form of the name of the Kagi Norin vocational school team - juxtaposes well-known Japanese stars and an army of young Taiwanese athletes (and a few Japanese ones) making their acting bows. While unfolding nearly entirely in Japanese - which served as lingua franca in colonial Taiwan - the film, which opened at home on Feb. 27, has already taken US$2.15 million during its first four days of release, and should easily flourish in Japan where it debuts on Mar. 7 at the Osaka Asia Film Festival.

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Whether it would do such brisk business at other regions remains to be seen; the film's performance in Hong Kong, where it will unspool on Mar. 27, perhaps can be taken as a litmus test for its appeal beyond baseball-friendly markets. Then again, it's not as if this appears to be Wei's and Umin Boya's major concern, as Kano could easily hedge its bets on its future in Japan; indeed, one can easily say Kano is even more accessible for Japanese audiences, given how the story is basically voiced through Japanese perspectives, consolidating its status as a nostalgia-tinged piece about the gregarious nature of their colonial regime in Taiwan.

Despite the interesting lives the Kano players have led since their miraculous run in 1931 - with details outlined at the end as on-screen texts - Wei's screenplay doesn't take a shining on these stories even when he seeks to employ flashbacks in the opening sequence. Instead, the film begins in 1944 around Joshiya (Ken Aoki), a Japanese soldier arriving in Taiwan and travelling south to embark on what we now know as sure-fire suicidal missions in the southern Pacific in the tail-end of the second world war. Just as his clean-shaven, well-groomed fellow conscripts banter about what they see - "So Taiwan has prospered under the rule of our Japanese Empire," one said - Joshiya asks to be awakened when the train arrives in Kagi (the Japanese name of Chiayi) before dozing off.

From there the film makes its first leap back in time, back to the opening ceremony of the Japanese national high-school championships in 1931. As the teams line up - among them a younger Joshiya and his squad from Hokkaido - the Kano players rushes into the stadium late, their behavior and belongings smacking of clueless country bumpkins having wandered wrongly into the spotlight. Barely has this comical episode subsided that the film makes a second jump into the past: it's now back in Kagi in 1929, and the Kano team are bumbling their way through a practice session: observing their wild battings and disorganized runs is Hyotaro Kondo (Masatoshi Nagase), a newly-arrived Japanese accountant who also happened to be once the most promising coaches in Japanese baseball.

And from there the generic formula kicks into gear, as the stoic Hyotaro drills discipline and skill into his rag-tag charges, and just as much as he brings out his rough-hewn teens' potential - including the Han pitcher Wu Ming-jie (Tso Yu-ning), the hardhitter Su Cheng-sheng (Chen Jing-hung) and the Ami-ancestry fast runner Yasurou Hirano (Chang Hung-i) - he also finds himself more at peace himself, the specter of his past failures back home in Japan gradually receding from view. Fighting off the disparagement of his fellow Japanese colonialists - including a row with a high-ranking, resource-controlling official who describes the Kano team as a multi-racial "motley crew" - he would eventually bring his kids to remarkable victories in Taiwan and a ticket to the finals in Japan.

More blood, sweat and tears are to follow, and it's hardly unexpected. More than so in his more light-footed Cape No. 7 and battle-hardened Seediq Bale diptych, Wei has indeed pulled all the stops and stretched with all his might to stir emotions, but with thinly-etched characters traipsing on cliches and surfing on Naoki Sato's overwrought score. Much ado in the flashbacks adds nothing to the script; in fact, Joshiya is superfluous as a character (he's not even the guy with which Kano faces in the final) and the strand about his trip to Kagi/Chiayi in 1944 actually brings about inadvertently worrying images (when a close-up of his military boots stomping at the Kano team's empty training ground actually pointing at the ominous relationship between the Japanese coloniser and the colonised locals).

But strangely Joshiya ends up becoming as full-fleshed as some of the Kano players, be it their background or motivation: the viewer never really gets a proper understanding of, say, the multi-faceted pressures in life for Wu and Hirano, with the former only being imposed with an unfulfilled puppy love and the latter serving as some kind of jester in the squad.

It's another absence, however, which makes Kano a rickety premise. The erasure of these players' past roots and present existence as members of different racially-delineated social classes is in parallel to the never-uttered Musha Massacre, the historical incident documented in Wei's Seediq Bale films in 2011 in which the Japanese colonial forces slaughtered thousands of insurrectionist indigenous tribesmen - among them people of the same race as some of the Kano players. It's a bloody episode which actually drove the colonial administration to a rethink about its strategies in bringing its subjects on side: thus the emphasis on tri-ethnic harmony and also the quickening of infrastructural development in the island. Not mentioning this would be akin to making a film about a mixed-race South African sports team in the 1970s and not mentioning apartheid.

Wei could have argued of wanting to just make an uplifting underdog teen-sports film, or a film about multicultural harmony in times of adversity. But it's an explanation he debunked himself when he runs Kondo's efforts to transform Kano from zeroes to heroes in parallel with that of Japanese architect Yoichi Hatta (Takao Osawa), as he is seen toiling to build irrigation systems around the region. Records show the Chianan Canal began operation in 1930, a year before Kano's annus mirabilis; by deliberately playing with the timeframe and unveiling these two strands in parallel - and there are many a scene of a god-like Hatta waving to dumbstruck locals - Wei and Umin Boya are actively offering up an ahistorical, apolitical and perhaps even amoral narrative of  "civilizing missions" in action.

Beyond the structural flaws and ideological mishaps, Kano offers a strange mix of dedicating too much time to awkward drama and comedy while too little in adding some depth into the characters playing shedding the tears and initiating the hilarity. It seems like the filmmakers are so in love with the project they didn't know when to stop - to the point of actually deflating the poignancy they established themselves with a coda in which Kondo and his team are seen travelling home on a steamer in very undercooked digital effects. Sometimes, hot-blooded is not just enough to sustain a historical epic - especially a three-hour treatise which attempts to produce a feel-good spectacle by yoking on it a historical issue which someone like Hou Hsiao-hsien, for example, has spent his whole career to decipher.

 

Venue: Press screening, Hong Kong, Mar. 3, 2014

Production Company: ARS Film Production

Director: Umin Boya

Cast: Masatoshi Nagase, Tsao Yu-ning, Chang Hung-i, Chen Jin-jung, Takao Osawa, Maki Sakai, Togo Igawa

Producers: Huang Chih-ming, Wei Te-sheng

Screenwriters: Ruby Chen, Wei Te-sheng, Umin Boya

Director of Photography: Chin Ting-chang

Editor: Su Pei-yi

Art Director: Makoto Asano

Music: Naoki Sato

Visual Effects Director: Chiu Cheng-ning

In Japanese, Taiwanese and Amis

No rating, 183 minutes

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