Nov 03, 2011|
(Taiwan/China) Directed by Tom Lin Shu-yu. Starring Josie Xu, Eric Lin, Rene Liu, Harlem Yu. Category IIA.
Three years after his acclaimed debut, “Winds of September,” a youthful tale of rebellious high-schoolers, Taiwanese director Tom Lin Shu-yu takes a gentle turn by bringing the island’s renowned illustrator Jimmy Liao’s beloved illustrated novel, “Starry Starry Night,” to the screen. A bittersweet coming-of-age story centered on two teenage misfits on a fantastical adventure who find peace and first love in each other, the picture—prominently featuring handsome visuals and two impressive performances from the young leads—bears an endearing purity and innocence long lost in today’s cinema. Though suffering from noticeable hiccups, Lin’s truthful adaptation is likely to satisfy both Liao’s loyal readers and regular moviegoers.
Thirteen-year-old schoolgirl Mei (Josie Xu) is from an urban middle-class family that’s about to fall apart. The everyday tension between her incompatible parents (played convincingly by veterans Rene Liu and Harlem Yu) deprives her of bliss at home, and the only person she feels connected to is her affectionate grandfather. He lives in a serene cottage in the mountains, and his favorite thing is do is to make colorful wooden animals for his granddaughter.
But before his latest gift, a blue elephant, can be fully assembled and given its final leg, Grandpa falls ill, leaving Mei even lonelier. Thankfully, the new boy in class, Jay (Eric Lin), another misfit, steps into her life. Jay is skinny, quirky and reserved, and therefore becomes the target of school bullies. He has an artistic talent that’s widely misunderstood and rageful feelings that explode at unexpected moments. Mei and Jay’s initial encounters are played out tastefully through a series of brief, mimed interactions. Sharing a love of arts and both ridden by family troubles, the two soon become soulmates. One night, Mei secretly leaves home and embarks on a journey to the mountains to revisit her grandpa’s cottage and the beautiful starry night that she’s missed for years. Jay tags along in the trip without any expectations but surprisingly finds his own rewards as well.
Using riveting CGI effects, the film vividly captures Liao’s unchained imagination: the three-legged elephant toddles along empty streets at midnight; giraffes, monkeys and birds made of paper come alive; a train flies into Van Gogh’s seminal painting, “Starry Night,” on its way to the remote mountains. Asia-based American cinematographer Jake Pollock, famous for “Monga” and “The Message,” deserves a lot of recognition for his efforts to present a unique lensing style that balances childish naiveté and adult-level sophistication.
As the central character, Xu almost single-handedly carries the story with an remarkable performance that will likely propel her to stardom. Lin plays a great second fiddle, emitting a dorky charisma even as he’s able to tap into deep, dark emotions. The young thespians share amazing on-screen chemistry, which further hefts the lovely story. Their characters’ budding sexuality is also displayed in the film, and not exactly coyly. Up for a challenging task, the director manages to make the hormone-related scenes rather sweet and funny while avoiding clichés.
But on the downside, some melodramatic sequences—such as a dance duet between Mei and her mother—come across as twee and sometimes prevent genuine heartfelt feelings from getting across. The final scene, whuch plays to Mei’s voice-over, is also unnecessarily fuzzy. It is, however, followed by an epilogue set in Paris a decade later, which draws a rather perfect ending to the story. What is particularly touching about the film is that its protagonists, in times of family crisis—rather than trying to salvage the situation—choose simply to run away and retreat to a land of fantasy. Though that storyline seems a tad passive at first, it in fact realistically conveys some of the powerless feelings of childhood that resonate with many. Audience members who haven’t read the book will find the end credits—accompanied by Liao’s original illustrations—worth staying for.