'Tiny Times 4.0' ('Xiao Shi Dai 4: Ling Hun Jin Tou'): Film Review

Tiny Times 4.0 Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Zhejiang Huace Film and Television, He Li Chen Guang Media, Le Vision Pictures (Tianjin)

Tiny Times 4.0 Still - H 2015

A teeny-bop premise ends with a tinny whimper.

Writer-turned-director Guo Jingming brings his series of adaptations of his own Shanghai-set romance novels to a close.

Catfights, cancer, corporate conspiracies, cosmetic surgery, Chippendale-aping striptease: true to style, Chinese novelist-turned-filmmaker Guo Jingming has thrown in everything but the kitchen sink in Tiny Times 4.0,  the latest and final installment in his tetralogy of adaptations of his novels about the fluctuating friendships among four young women in modern-day Shanghai.

Just like his characters, however, Guo seems to have not matured into his new artistic calling: despite being flanked by two "executive directors," he remains completely at a loss in adapting his material to the constraints of the film medium. He simply doesn't do structure and subtlety, as is evident in the awkwardly reshot and re-edited scenes aimed at reducing the presence of the drug-busted and black-listed actor Kai Ko.

The myriad cracks in the previous installments have largely been papered over by Guo's near-maximalist representation of material excess. Indifference is not actually an option when confronted with something so over-the-top and in-your-face. Having pared back on the bling-fueled bluster - perhaps due to slashed budgets, or the need to avoid censure from a current Chinese leadership bent on advocating austere lifestyles - Tiny Times 4.0 reveals itself as a novice visual storyteller's failed attempt to inject gravitas into a tired premise.

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While steadfast Chinese fans will most probably support Guo and his stellar cast to the very end - a loyalty epitomized by the $32.2 million gross it has attained in the country during the first two days after its July 9 opening - the film's takings have been eaten into somewhat by the release of the similarly teen-oriented bosom-buddies drama Forever Young. The film's fortunes beyond China are minimal; 3.0 has, for the moment, yet to be picked up for release.

As for many a film series, the uninitiated need not apply. Guo doesn't suffer newcomers gladly in his universe. And after the plethora of characters being thrown into the mix in the third film - most of them young hunks bearing the same muscular physique and furrowed-brow expression - the labyrinthine web of relationships poses a near-impenetrable challenge for anyone beyond the diehard.

Picking up where the third film left off, 4.0 mostly revolves around the trials of Lily (the bankable Amber Kuo), the once-rich queen bee who finds herself near financial ruin because of the debts left behind by her father. Perhaps fearing that the number-crunching might be too daunting for his target demographic, Guo has given Lily the more relatable trial of having to combat a newly diagnosed cancer. Too proud to seek solace from anyone around her, Lily sets off a chain of self-destructive events which lead to her estrangement from erstwhile best friends Lin Xiao (Mini Yang), Nan Xiang (Bea Hayden Kuo) and Ruby (Sie Yi-lin).

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As Tiny Times soars into its climactic grand finale, tragedies abound as relationships are cast asunder. Lin Xiao's personal and private lives spiral into oblivion in quick succession; the femme fatale of the four, Nan Xiang reveals her true social-climbing colors as she eases her way into the heart of her boss (Vivian Dawson) and up the greasy corporate pole; and Ruby, the jester of the group, recoils from contact with anyone else as she struggles to recover from the disfiguring aftermath of her falling out with her friends.

Probably more at ease unveiling his intertwining storylines across wide swathes of space in print, Guo struggles to pace his plotlines. Rather than offering a script in which characters are sketched out of small but revealing and symbolic gestures, he has instead hedged his bets on pretty faces striking poses which try and fail to signify sadness. Tiny Times 4.0 is an anti-climax that brings an erstwhile controversial and cacophonous cinematic juggernaut to a whimpering close.

Opens: July 9 (Mainland China)

Production companies: Maisong Film Investment (Shanghai) in a presentation by Zhejiang Huace Film and Television, He Li Chen Guang Media,Le Vision Pictures (Tianjin) presentation, with 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, Beijing Max Times Cultural Development, Alibaba (Hangzhou) Cultural Creativity

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

Director: Guo Jingming

Screenwriter: Guo Jingming

Producer: Li Li, with Zhang Ching, Zhang Yu

Executive producer: Zhao Yifang, Angie Chai, Xie Dongshen

Director of photography: Randy Che

Art director: Chun Soo-a

Production designer: Rosalie Huang

Editor: Qiao Aiyu

Music: Alan Wong

Casting directors: Chen Lei, Li Hong

Sales: Le Vision Pictures

In Mandarin and English

No rating; 116 minutes