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The big-screen debut of veteran Taiwanese TV drama producer Frankie Chen Yu-shan is a smartly cast, sweetly nostalgic teen romance with juvenile storytelling. Described as the woman’s version of You Are the Apple of My Eye (2011), the semi-autobiographical Asian blockbuster about the first love of author-helmer Giddens Ko, Our Times manages to portray young romance in all its awkward splendor but fails to live up to the narrative sophistication and emotional persuasiveness of the earlier film. Yet just when you prepare to down the last of the popcorn, screenwriter Sabrina Tseng springs a surprise or two that sets this romantic comedy apart from other syrupy boy-meets-girl numbers.
Taiwan’s best box-office performer in 2015 so far, it has grossed $12.6 million since mid-August (half a million shy of You Are the Apple of My Eye) and topped the chart in Hong Kong, beating The Martian upon release. In Singapore and Malaysia, it landed in second place. The film should be able to command a following in niche markets in the U.S., if the current popularity of Asian TV dramas and Asian pop is a reliable indicator. The director herself has mentioned that the protagonists’ characterizations were inspired by Meteor Garden, a wildly successful Taiwanese TV series based on a Japanese manga that was made into Boys Before Friends for the U.S. market in 2013.
The story revolves around Truly Lin’s (Joe Chen) flashback of the puppy love affair involving her younger self (Vivian Sung, Cafe.Waiting.Love) and three senior high classmates — crush Ouyang Extraordinary (Dino Lee), campus sweetheart Tao Minmin (Dewi Chien) and bad boy Hsu Taiyu (Darren Wang). It’s bookended by her present life as a hardworking optimist trapped in a dead-end job and an unsuitable relationship. Things were different in the 1990s. At 18, she was plain, clumsy and good-natured, a mix that eventually, with some help from a makeover, won her more than she asked for.
Production designer Yang Zhuan-xin goes to meticulous lengths to re-create the ’90s — inline skating rinks, Japanese department stores, Stephen Chow movies, chain letters and other nostalgic paraphernalia — and a society relishing its newfound freedom. Connecting Truly’s past and present is ’90s icon, Hong Kong actor and Cantopop king Andy Lau (Days of Being Wild, House of Flying Daggers), whom she idolizes. Lau took both sides of the Taiwan Strait by storm in the 1990s — post-Open Door Policy China, and a Taiwan freshly released from four decades of martial law. Lau’s (cheesy) songs are featured on the film’s melodramatic soundtrack alongside other Cantopop tunes of the era. Perhaps this is the only way to enjoy them — with the distance of nostalgia.
Chen’s roots in TV drama are reflected in the film’s penchant for manga-inspired slapstick and cartoonish sidekicks. While this type of humor is not to everyone’s taste, the timing and delivery here are spot-on. Chen also made savvy casting choices. Chien and Lee are fitting as brainy but bland campus eye candy. Chien’s acting leaves much to be desired but even that seems to be in character. Vivian Sung and Darren Wang’s performances are reasonably nuanced for fresh talent. Adult Truly exhibits the same righteousness and taste for drama as her younger self — a thoughtful consistency on the part of the writer that does not go unnoticed. Wang is not only charming as Hsu Taiyu, but seems to have stepped straight out of the ’90s, with his tan, his oozing machismo, bushy eyebrows and Julia Roberts grin. Very different from millennium K-pop boys like Big Bang, who’re adored for their delicate features and porcelain skin.
The story manages to sustain its cohesiveness in the first hour. But when catalysts for change are introduced — first Hsu’s backstory, then Truly’s makeover, eventually the new discipline master — the narrative shows signs of strain as it tries to shift the trajectory of events. After the revelation about Hsu, Truly presents him with a challenge that leads to a fundamental personality change. It’s a pivotal scene yet it falls on its face (as does Truly). Her outpour is almost cringe-worthy, as is the plot’s desperate attempt to change directions. A similar thing occurs with the new discipline master, completely flat in his “evilness” like the jester-type characters, except he’s not there to amuse from the sideline — in fact, he’s the only person the film does not make fun of — but to drive the plot forward.
The film’s latter half resorts to flashbacks to reveal hidden perspectives of past events. This means a lot of going over old ground and repetition of accounts, which gets dull quickly, especially when the “truths” are nothing to jump up about. That said, the film’s two biggest revelations — made during a game of Truth or Dare and at the very end, do surprise and save the plot from completely unraveling.
There are a few well-placed allusions to Western culture. Wang’s image as the rebel biker invokes James Dean and Marlon Brando. To the director’s credit, this is no mere gimmick, but a hint of Truly’s true affections — Andy Lau, too, channeled Dean/Brando in A Moment of Romance (1990). Hsu ends his cassette recording with “Aqi te amos.” Again this is no random Spanish phrase thrown in for exoticism, but the title of a poem by Pablo Neruda that appeared earlier in a very different context. These precise calculations contribute to the film’s best moments, moments that, unfortunately, are let down by rudimentary storytelling.
Production Company: Hualien Media International
Cast: Vivian Sung, Darren Wang, Joe Chen, Jerry Yan, Dino Lee and Dewi Chien
Director: Frankie Chen
Screenwriter: Sabrina Tseng
Producer: Yeh Jufeng
Directors of photography: Min-zhong Jiang, Kuo-lung Chen
Production designer: Zhuan-xin Yang
Costume designer: Li-Wen Hsu
Editors: Wenders Li, Kevin Gu
Music: Chris Hou
World sales: Peter Hsu (Spring Thunder Entertainment)
No rating, 134 minutes
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