By Yueh-lin Ma
First Published: December 18, 2016 (No.612)
An impossible mission
Travel across 22793 km
No more loneliness sound in the ocean
52Hz, I love you
Film director Wei Te-sheng has turned his hand to making a musical. Featuring original songs and lyrics, 52Hz, I Love You is a film that awakens the ears, gets the heart pumping, and is sure to warm your heart.
His new film, 52Hz, I Love You, set for release during the Chinese New Year holiday in January of 2017, is a romantic comedy musical. The movie’s four main characters, including Suming Rupi, are all lead singers of independent Taiwanese musical groups. Featuring great tunes and a well-paced story with humor and warmth, one cannot help but smile after watching it.
Nearly all of the Disney cartoons that dominate box offices around the world are musicals, but musicals are rare in Chinese-speaking cinema. In retrospect, only Perhaps Love (2005), directed by Peter Chan, was a success in recent memory. And before that, one must go back 53 years to the Huangmei Opera Butterfly Lovers.
It would seem that no topic is beyond him, from the epic Seediq Bale to the lighthearted romance of 52Hz, I Love You. “I want to make the audience happy, forget their loneliness, and feel how nice it is to have someone to be with,” says Wei.
Naturally, the biggest challenge for movie musicals is music. 52Hz only took 39 days to shoot, the key being the tight pre-production preparation, especially the songwriting, lyrics, music selection, casting, and assignment of which songs each actor would sing. Only after performances of all 16 songs had been completed did it reach the conventional film preparation stage.
“I have no theater experience, and have never worked a scene that calls for singing, requiring rich music as well as lots of laughs. Figuring out how to set it up and arrange it was tough for me,” admits Wei. As a result, he approached it like a first-time filmmaker, meticulously designing one cut after the other.
Music is a catalyst that can heighten and punctuate moods in movies. And Wei has already demonstrated a grasp of how to use music skillfully in Cape No. 7. Says the director, “Sometimes you don’t need dialogue, just pictures and music, and you can get excite the audience’s passion.”
Songs from five years ago
Matthew Yen, composer of “Southern Border,” winner of the Golden Horse Award for Best Original Movie Theme for the film Cape No. 7, is a longtime collaborator of Wei’s. Yen began looking at the script and preparing lyrics for 52Hz as far back as 2012, intent on making the lyrics of every song critical to moving the plot forward.
“Lyrics express the characters’ ideas and feelings, and convey information about the story rather than interrupt the viewers’ rhythm and force a time-out for a song,” relates Yen. Filmmakers and musicians are romantic in different ways, and considerable communication is necessary throughout the creative process, as song lyrics are part of the script. Accordingly, the lyrics had to be set first to see if they conformed to the director’s conception. Yen himself spent practically the entire second half of 2015 with songwriter, arranger and musical director Lee Cheng-fan and his wife, music coordinator Wang Juo-han, at their home in the foothills of Xindian.
This marked the first time that Lee, arranger of such notable tunes as Sarah Chen’s Dream to Awakening and Sylvia Chang’s The Price of Love, worked with Wei. “In art there is no one correct answer. We explored together, constantly searching for the musical style he was after. Director Wei put a lot of thought into it, but since what he says usually goes, whenever there were differences of opinion, the music team ended up compromising anyway,” recalls Lee. At first he thought Wei was especially headstrong, but after seeing the final cut of the film, “I finally realized why the director was sticking to his guns and why those versions were chosen,” Lee admits.
For Lee, another big challenge in addition to establishing rapport with Wei was not knowing who would sing the songs before they were written. This made writing for particular singers impossible, and waiting until after all four main actors were settled before refining each song.
After watching practically every performance by Taiwan’s independent bands on YouTube, Wei picked out the singers he found the best looking, most affable, and best at working an audience. “Not the angry type, and not the genteel intellectual type, but lead singers that could feel familiar to audiences and balance popular styles and enjoyment,” Wei says.
He ended up selecting two male and two female singers, namely Suming Rupi of Totem, Xiao Yu of Cosmospeople, Mify of Men Envy Children (MECBand), and Xiao Qiu of Katncandix2. “Xiao Yu and Suming are both creative singers. When they sing they interpret emotions with sincerity. Mify and Xiao Qiu often cover other people’s songs, so they could easily put their stamp on new songs.” Wei’s casting choices shine, as all four lead characters not only sing well, but acquit themselves admirably as actors, never looking stiff or awkward as first-time actors often do.
“Singing and acting at the same time makes it hard to concentrate!” exclaims Suming, the only member of the four with acting experience. A Golden Melody and Golden Horse award winner, Suming took voice lessons to make sure he hit all his high notes without warbling. “In one scene in a parking lot, I had to run and sing at the same time. I had to hit the notes even while my body was shaking, and the director still kept telling me to be natural, which was so difficult to do!” Suming even lost 15 kilograms for the part, looking every bit the carefree, guitar playing music shop owner who is so naive he has no idea his girlfriend is about to break up with him on Valentine’s Day.
Oversea’s tour, bonding people together
In Suming’s eyes, Wei is an exceptionally focused director with his own ideas and who gives very specific direction to his actors. “He never lost his temper on set – he was always smiling. But he is also very demanding,” says Suming. Mify, who plays Suming’s girlfriend in the movie, says Wei was like a father figure to the actors, always looking out for them. “He is so attentive to the actors, which made shooting the movie a lot of fun for me,” relates Mify. One group scene where they ride motorcycles saw her botch it up over 20 times, but when she finally did get it right it was powerful. And the live mic version ended up being the best, showing her formidable singing chops.
52Hz has not yet hit the theaters in Taiwan, but Wei has already taken the film with him for a 52-city tour of North America, where it was shown 65 times. “How could anyone do something like this? He felt that many overseas Taiwanese had not seen the beauty of Taiwan for a long time, so he brought the movie to them. He really makes people bond together, and that really touched me,” says Lee.
From directing Cape No. 7 and Seediq Bale to serving as executive producer of KANO, and now back to directing with 52Hz, Wei’s films are all about Taiwan’s present and past. From mountain to sea, plains to the city, Wei’s lens brings audiences on an emotional journey, laughing one moment and crying the next.
“I met Director Wei in 2004, and he has always been focused on what he wants to do. Time has put him to the test; he has matured well and is surrounded by his team, and his command of moviemaking continues to gain precision,” observes Yen.
Wei sets the fashion with his films, rather than allowing fashion to dictate how he approaches his films. Apart from raw talent, pure conviction is probably what gives Wei the ability to consistently touch people’s hearts.
Translated from the Chinese by David Toman