Chie Tanaka, of Cape No. 7 fame

by AFP/Amber Wang, Jan 7, 2009 | Destinations: Japan / Taiwan

Taipei, December 24, 2008 - Japanese actress Chie Tanaka, who shot to fame in Taiwan after starring in the island's biggest-ever blockbuster, now says she is keen to make her name in Chinese-language cinema.

Tanaka, who came to the island two years ago in a bid to boost her career, said her dreams came true when Taiwanese director Wei Te-sheng picked her as the lead in the romantic drama "Cape No. 7".

"I was very lucky to get the role. It's very challenging for me to act in Mandarin," said Tanaka, who studied the language for only eight months before shooting began.

"Cape No. 7" tells of the romance between a local singer and a spirited Japanese publicist played by Tanaka. It has become Taiwan's highest-grossing Chinese-language film ever.

The film won top honours at Taiwan's Golden Horse Film Awards, considered the Chinese-language Oscars, and at international film festivals in Japan and Hawaii.

Tanaka herself was nominated for a Golden Horse for best new performer and although she didn't win, the film made her a household name here virtually overnight, bringing her lucrative performing and endorsement deals.

The 27-year-old, who is now based in Taiwan, admits she would not have made the big break had she stayed in her native country.

"I hope to become a good actress but there are very few opportunities for a breakthrough in Japan's fiercely competitive entertainment industry," Tanaka said.

"I wanted to try my luck abroad but it's still very daunting to have to start anew in a foreign land," she told AFP in an interview in Mandarin.

Her leap of faith came after playing a minor role in the 2005 car racing flick "Initial D" by acclaimed Hong Kong director Lau Wai-keung, featuring Taiwanese star Jay Chou.

"The Japanese are very serious and nervous about doing their jobs right. The Taiwanese, even stars like Chou, are friendly, easy-going and more relaxed. I thought I'd like to work in such an environment," Tanaka said.

The decision nevertheless shocked her father -- noted Japanese make-up artist Tony Tanaka -- who tried to talk her out of the move, citing the language barrier.

"My father was very concerned about how could I work in Taiwan speaking not one word of Chinese. I could have stayed in Japan which would be very safe for me but I didn't want to go on like that," Tanaka said.

"My instinct was that there would be more opportunities in Chinese-language cinema and I would have a better chance if I could speak the language."

Tanaka is among a growing number of foreigners who have studied Mandarin and relocated to Taiwan to pursue showbiz careers as they see the rising clout of the Chinese language and pop culture, industry watchers say.

"There is a global trend to study Chinese as China's power rises," said film critic Liang Liang, who compared the marketing clout of Chinese-language cinema to Hollywood and India's Bollywood.

"Taiwan particularly attracts foreign performers as it is internationalised and culturally diverse," he said.

Tanaka's agent Rebecca Chen, who also represents eight other Japanese actors, said the Japanese have an advantage here because of historical ties between the two cultures.

Taiwan-born Japanese heartthrob actor Takeshi Kaneshiro, who is much sought-after in Asian cinema, made his debut on the island before broadening his career to Japan and elsewhere.

"The (Taiwan) experience helps Tanaka raise her profile and hone her acting craft. It would be a plus for her when she returns to Japan," Chen said.

Taiwan is much more sympathetic toward Japan despite being colonised between 1895-1945, compared with China which considers itself the biggest victim of past Japanese aggression.

"Cape No. 7" has become mired in controversy after its release in China was held up due to its Japanese themes, prompting an appeal from Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou.

Tanaka remains hopeful about exploring the possibilities in China despite the anti-Japan sentiment there.

"I am not worried about going to work on the mainland. Chinese fans left messages on my blog telling me they want to see 'Cape No. 7'. I hope to promote the movie there and meet my fans," she said.

"I think we can look at films and politics separately," she said. "I am willing to work in Taiwan, China or Japan where there are good scrips."

Tanaka, whose latest project is to lend her voice to a Mandarin-language animated film, said she is also confident about playing non-Japanese characters in the future.

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