Once upon a time (a decade ago), the unspoken consensus in the movie world seemed to be that Asians couldn’t do love stories, much less musical love stories. Happy, soaring, blockbuster types that would send audiences home with goofy smiles and humming a tune from the soundtrack? Not happening.
“I used to think so, too,” says Wei Te-Sheng, the Taiwanese director and co-writer of the uplifting musical love story “52Hz, I Love You.” “Actually, I think that, because Asians are new to this genre, there’s a lot of potential for growth. Personally, I had to get over my own hang-ups about the genre, and about love stories in general.”
Indeed, cinema reels of romantic joy are not what you’d normally associate with Wei, who cut his teeth as an assistant director to Edward Yang, who spearheaded Taiwan’s new wave and won a best director prize at Cannes for the 2000 film “Yi Yi.”
Wei, 48, rocked the Taiwanese film industry with his debut feature, “Cape No. 7,” in 2008, which broke box-office records there and starred Taiwan-based Japanese actress Chie Tanaka. With a mostly Japanese narrative set in two timelines — World War II and present-day — Wei says he has been told that he may be “too pro-Japan. But so much of Taiwanese history is intertwined with Japan, it’s really impossible to ignore the Japan influence.”
In 2014, Wei wrote and produced “Kano,” a true story of baseball and friendship in a Taiwan under Japanese colonial rule in the 1930s. “Kano” starred big-name Japanese actors Masatoshi Nagase and Takao Osawa, and became the sixth-biggest box-office hit in Taiwan.
“After ‘Kano,’ though, I wanted to get away from history and do something different,” Wei says when asked why he switched to romance. “I watched Hollywood movies and understood the force of their storytelling, and I began to think, ‘I can do this,’ but in my own style.”
Wei also suspects “52Hz, I Love You” benefitted from good timing.
“The Taiwanese film industry and audiences were ready for it because a decade ago, Taiwanese film really sucked,” he says. “No one was making money, and audiences would only pay to see Hollywood movies. A bunch of us local directors got together and said to each other that since we’re going down, we may as well do something we love, rather than tailor our stories to fit audience needs. That ploy wasn’t working anyway. But now, things are different. I thought I had better reset my thinking, because a new generation of filmmakers are pushing the envelope again.”
“52Hz, I Love You” is a Valentine’s Day story that focuses on florist Xin (Zhuang Juanying) and baker Ang (Lin Zhong-yu). Xin is single and longing for romance, Ang thinks he’s in love with a customer named Lei (Mify Chen). Lei has been supporting a boyfriend for 10 years while he pursues his dream of becoming a composer, and she has just about had enough of paying his bills. Too wrapped up in himself to notice that Lei is fed up, wannabe composer Da He (Suming Rupi) has booked a table at a swank restaurant and is about to propose. As Xin is about to deliver flowers and Ang is getting ready to do the same with chocolates at the same restaurant, the story comes together in one big musical splash.
“I had thought of this storyline 20 years ago,” Wei says. “Back then, I had no girlfriend and no one to hang out with on Valentine’s Day. There I was alone, sitting in my room and watching TV. All the commercials were about getting people to spend money on Valentine’s Day and I was full of resentment against relationships and commercialism. Sad, right? But 20 years later, I was ready to take that loneliness and make it into something positive.”
The film’s title is inspired by the 52Hz whale, which is referred to as the loneliest whale on the planet since no other whales can hear its high-frequency call.
“I wanted a title that was universal, not Asian,” Wei says. “I also wanted to see how far I could go within the confines of a Hollywood-style musical.”
To this end, Wei commissioned 17 original songs and spent eight months overseeing the music.
“The composer was semi-retired and he lived on the top of a mountain,” Wei says. “Every morning I climbed that mountain to go see him and explain exactly what I was after with each song. At this point, there was no cast and we hadn’t shot anything. I only had the bare bones of a story. For eight months we argued, reconciled and argued some more. He gave me three to four versions to every song and I ended up choosing the ones that he wrote when he got really mad at me!”
Wei also mentions that managing the logistics of the song-and-dance sequences was quite difficult.
“The hardest part was to engineer the scenes so that the story didn’t stop when it came time for the cast to sing and dance,” he says. “With musicals in Asia, it’s either one or the other — the story comes to a halt when the music and dancing come on. But I didn’t want to do that, I had to work around the music to tell the story at the same time. The logistics were daunting, but soon it got to be fun.”
When it comes to his own musical favorites, Wei says “Fiddler on the Roof” and Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge!” are among the best.
“The first time I watched ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ I was dumbstruck,” he recalls. “I had never seen anything like it and was so enthralled by the storytelling. ‘Moulin Rouge!’ is a sheer technical wonder. I don’t think I’ll ever get close to these two works, but I think ’52Hz, I Love You’ is a step in the right direction. Asian cinema is on the brink of real change, and I intend to be here when it happens.”
“52Hz, I Love You” opens in cinemas nationwide under the title “52Hz no Rabu Songu” on Dec. 16. For more information, visit www.52hz.jp.