'Tiny Times 3.0' ('Xiao Shi Dai 3: Ci Jin Shi Dai'): Film Review

Le Vision Pictures
Yet another sexless, legless Dallas-meets-Sex-and-the-City for China's 15-25 female demographic.  

The third installment of the Chinese romance series popular with teens offers nothing for the uninitiated.

Tiny Times 3.0 boasts very decently done English subtitles. Whether anyone would need them for this mish-mash of garish gags and messy melodrama, however, is another matter. Director-screenwriter Guo Jingming seems only to have kept in mind the hordes of summer-vacationing mainland Chinese teenage girls longing for some eye-candy to escape the stifling heat and rampaging Transformers. Newcomers need not apply, as the film offers scant indication of what has gone on before in the lives of its quartet of friends-4-eva protagonists; then again, who needs fresh converts when Guo's die-hard fans are already there for the taking, as shown by the film's record-shattering, $17.7-million opening-day gross on Jul. 17?

Now in its penultimate installment, the Tiny Times films which Guo adapted from his best-selling five-volume series of novels about four bosom buddies from high school to adulthood — have been much deplored for their over-the-top celebration of frivolous wealth. Though visibly more restrained in this aspect — after all, even China's state media ran disapproving editorials when the previous film opened last summer — 3.0 still parades around white horses in champagne-fueled garden parties, mansions and offices in Shanghai measuring the size of small factories, as well as shoe collections Carrie Bradshaw would probably die for.

Indeed, all this teeters closely to all-out tastelessness, but what makes 3.0 even more unbearable than its predecessors is the sheer ineptitude beneath the glossy surface: the laughable narrative, scatterbrained storytelling and inconsistent characterizations basically magnify the previous film's flaws to an improbable extreme.

To recap: 2.0 ends on an ominous note, with Nanxiang (Bea Layden) — the silent-beauty archetype of the film's female foursome — estranged from her friends and wasting away in bars. As 3.0 begins, however, she is seen settling into a lavish bachelorette pad with her friends — queen bee Lily (Amber Kuo), lifestyle magazine executive Lin Xiao (Mini Yang, also seen in the hit The Breakup Guru) and Melissa-McCarthy-esque jester Ruby (Sie Yi-lin). All's somehow forgiven and forgotten for now, it seems, and a 20-minute pre-credit sequence ensues showing the characters running amok on a business-free business trip to Rome, complete with pose-striking sessions in front of the Colosseum and Trevi Fountain, a robbery-turned-romp through postcard-perfect streets and fashion-flaunting scenes in boutiques.

The first glimpse of Guo's cavalier narrative approach arrives right at the end of all this frolicking: one moment the women are playing mahjong in the Italian capital, and the next, Lin Xiao is seen in a series of close-ups crying her heart out as she flies home to Shanghai. It turns out her cancer-stricken novelist boyfriend Zhou Chongguang (Chen Xuedong) has died in the U.S. while she was away from home; cue the English-language funeral, shots of Lin holing up in her room in a vodka-fueled stupor (the drinking isn't seen, of course) and then staring out of her window, while computer-generated effects cue the change of season outside.

All this takes up only a few minutes of screen time, mind you, as solitude and melancholy are, like, so uncool in the Tiny Times universe. The ethos here is to dress everything up in loud, flowery patterns, jump from one twist to another without any sense of build-up and hope the viewer won't notice the cracks. Here in 3.0, so many pretty faces are thrown into the mix that nobody acknowledges that the "plot," which involves some kind of corporate conspiracy that will allow Lily to get her late father's company back, is ridden with holes big enough to host a — one might as well say it, since the product placements are so prevalent here — Fendi flagship store.

Apart from tangling with her nemesis (and Lin Xiao's boss) Gong Ming (Vivian Dawson, standing in for Rhydian Vaughan from the first two films), the sharp-tongued Lily also gains a cousin in Neil (Korean pop-star Lee Hyun-jae, spouting barely-intelligible Mandarin) and then a stepbrother in Chun (model Ming Ren, making his film debut with a one-note performance distinguished by a constantly furrowed brow). There's also Lily's rich, mama's-boy paramour Gu Yuan (Kai Ko), as well as various former and current flames of the other three women, establishing an entangled labyrinth of relationships that threatens to derail Lily's scheme and the protagonists' friendship.

Given the many abrupt emotional U-turns, one never gets the sense that these characters register past traumas and current crises beyond skin-deep, knee-jerk outbursts and reconciliations. There's a chance that Guo knows 3.0 is necessary to keep his fans happy for the series' grand finale, to be released during the next Lunar New Year school break in February. That's probably why this installment bears all the hallmarks of a mindlessly assembled stopgap mining easy laughs (a mission: impossible parody is the main culprit) and sensationalistic frissons (literal handbag fights between the girls, hints of homoeroticism between the boys).

It's perhaps heroic, therefore, to see Yang and Kuo actually conjuring odd flickers of authentic emotion beneath all this contrived bluster; so much window dressing, from the bombastic pop songs to the fairytale visions of a snowed-under Shanghai, has reduced even the real actors here to mere mannequins. As long as the people onscreen look so cool and so hot, the Tiny Times fan base won't be whining. If ever there were a case of abandoning forests of possibilities for the tree of a particular demographic, Tiny Times 3.0 is it.

Venue: Public screening, Shenzhen

Production companies: Maisong Film Investment (Shanghai), Le Vision Pictures (Tianjin), Zhejiang Huace Film and Television, Beijing Max Times Cultural Development, Battlestar Studio, Beijing EY Productions production in a presentation by Zhejiang Huace Film and Television, He Li Chen Guang Media, Le Vision Pictures (Tianjin), EE Media, Shanghai Entertainment Team Media Group, Comic Rich Film and TV Culture, Vision Power, Ruyi Films, Shandong Jiabo Culture Development Company, Shanghai Zui Culture Development Company, Maisong Film Investment (Shanghai)

Cast: Mini Yang, Amber Kuo, Bea Hayden (Guo Biting), Sie Yi-lin, Kai Ko, Chen Xuedong, Vivian Dawson

Director: Guo Jingming

Screenwriter: Guo Jingming

Producer: Li Li, and co-presented by Zhao Yifang, Zhang Zhao, Lv Huanbin, Wang Jianjun, Angie Chai, Wu Zhonghan, Ke Liming, Song Xianqiang, Wu Liang, Chen Lizhi

Executive producer: Zhao Yifang, Angie Chai, Xie Dongshen

Director of photography: Randy Che

Production designer: Rosalie Huang

Costume designer: Rosalie Huang

Editor: Qiao Aiyu

Music: Alan Wong

In Mandarin and English

No rating; 126 minutes