‘First of May’: Hong Kong Review

First of May Still - h 2015
Courtesy of Hong Kong International Film Festival

First of May Still - h 2015

A delicate but tiresome tale of first love

Romance between fresh-faced Taiwanese schoolmates spans two generations

You can fairly hear the sighs of nostalgia in the Taiwanese romantic drama First of May, a tale of lost love that survives the passing years, children, divorces and an accident. Though sentimentally over-calculated and predictable, this love story spanning two generations is buoyed up by appealing characters and a clean, contemporary look. However the first feature directed by commercial and music video producer Chou Ko-tai is not always successful in interweaving the past and present, leaving the door open to a good deal of confusion about who’s who, especially for foreigners unfamiliar with historical clues. The fact that protags Wong Lei and (20 years later) her daughter Bai are played by the same fresh-faced young actress, Lyan Cheng, doesn’t help sort things out. Still, the attractive cast and lilting, polished imagery should make it a good regional date movie.

There's a lot of that the-way-we-were feeling. Schoolgirls in short skirts frolic in rain puddles, unaware of their budding sexuality. Trees blossom voluptuously. Boys horse around and are punished for schoolboy stunts. Carefree youths chase each other on their bikes. In one of the film’s more original images, schoolboys hurl stolen LP’s off a cliff into the air, where they soar like Frisbees. Their anger against the high school principal seems like an inevitable part of growing up, more than resentment at the chastisement he metes out for their rule-breaking antics.

All this takes place in a high school some twenty years ago, where pretty Wong Lei is a modest, reserved A-student. She attracts the attention of Lin Ke-ming (Chih-tien Shih), the good-looking son of an army officer, when she beats him in an English contest. From that moment on he’s infatuated with her, though he seems to have some hidden feelings for his swinging English teacher Miss Chen as well. Alas, the course of true love never runs smooth, especially in the movies, and their awkward teenage courtship flounders on jealousy. Then there's a terrible misunderstanding over, ironically enough, Lin’s Chinese translation of the Bee Gees’ song First of May, intended as a love letter to Wong Lei.

Decades later, after a traumatic accident, Wong Lei’s true feelings for Lin come to light through the intercession of her 17-year-old daughter Bai. The latter becomes a go-between when she contacts Lin (Richie Jen), now an emotionally unfulfilled 40-year-old and the head of a flashy architectural studio. “We’re getting older,” he sighs, as he sees his first love’s face in young Bai. It's a bad line, but popular actor and singer Jen has an ironic down-to-earth quality that makes Lin seem like someone worth waiting for.

Though Cheng is charming in both of her schoolgirl guises, the nostalgia factor tips the scales in favor of the more innocent Wong Lei. As the boy who falls for her, Chih-tien Shih brings a pleasant dose of foolhardy courage to his love. Nothing, however, foreshadows his violent reaction when he chances upon an amorous couple at school, in a scene that feels gratuitous and false.

Production designers Weng Ting-Yang and Cheng Chih-Han create a sophisticated contemporary mood by removing virtually every color except black and white from the décor and costumes, until the film’s final moments when red and blue umbrellas burst into the frame. The effect looks a bit like an extended commercial, but quite stylish thanks to cinematographer Shih Shu-Ming’s artful lensing.

Production company: South of The Road Production House
Cast: Lyan Cheng, Chih-tien Shih, Richie Jen, Alyssa Chia
Director: Chou Ko-tai
Screenwriter: Yuan Chiung-chiung
Producers: Chou Ko-tai, Ching-chu Hsu
Associate producer: Tseng Han-hsien
Executive producers: Ching-sung Liao
Director of photography: Shih Shu-Ming
Production designers: Weng Ting-Yang, Cheng Chih-Han
Costume designer: Lulu Chien
Ching-sung Liao, Hsiao-Tong Chen, Ku Hsiao-Yun
Music: Cin Cin Lee, Miogo Che
Sales: Central Motion Picture Corp.

No rating, 110 minutes