Tiny Times: Film Review

Tiny Times Film Still - H 2013

Tiny Times Film Still - H 2013

A film banking on a fantastical depiction of fashionable upper-class lives is brought to earth with its unconvincing characters and clichéd romances.

Writer Guo Jingming adapts the first volume of his hit series of novels, about the fortunes of four young women in modern-day Shanghai, for his directorial debut, which became a success in China before hitting U.S. theaters.

One of the recurrent musical leitmotifs in Tiny Times is "Auld Lang Syne": A sepia-tinged prologue shows its four protagonists performing a Chinese-language version of it on stage at their high-school graduation show, and many a scene in the narrative proper – with the characters now fledging university students – is propped up by the instrumental take of the song whenever the young women are forced to lament on the anguish imposed on them by their rite of passage into early adulthood.

It’s perhaps par for the course for a film, aimed at facilitating its female teenage market demographic, to fantasize about a posh way of living, to deploy a well-known foreign folk song as a running sonic backdrop. It’s just that Guo Jingming, the film’s writer-director, might have chosen the wrong musical number to do it: Given the near-complete lack of nuanced emotions, substantial characterization and proper acknowledgement of the tenacity of social and interpersonal bonds, the use of a song championing the values of human relationships is perhaps an irony.

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Then again, Tiny Times is never about casting a backward glance at olden days: What’s golden, shown literally and metaphorically in the film, is the here and now, conveyed through the materialist and pop-culture totems de jour. Perhaps realizing the visual possibilities that the written-word medium could never afford him, Guo has adapted his novel – well, the first half of volume one of his literary trilogy, to be exact – into a turbo-charged, unapologetic romp through life in the gleaming 21st century Shanghai’s very fast lanes.

With the film’s main thread being the efforts of fumbling girl-next-door Lin Xiao (Mini Yang) in settling into her job at a fashion magazine and acclimatizing herself to the glamorous, high-octane world of haute couture – which comes complete with a chief editor (the Taiwanese-Welsh actor Rhydian Vaughan) whose monstrous, demanding veneer belies the melancholic persona of (what Lin Xiao describes dreamily in a voice-over) “a distant, lonely planet in the universe” – it’s easy to interpret Tiny Times as a Chinese reworking of The Devil Wears Prada. But to put Guo’s directorial debut in a proper context, think a de-sexed Sex and the City: not the television series but the film – and the second one, to be exact, where personal and professional struggles about a young woman’s daily existence has long given way to the oh-so-demanding conundrums about which man to fancy, what shoes to wear and where and when to hit the town.

To be fair, the characters in Tiny Times do reflect on weightier, more authentic issues a modern-day twentysomething might have to face in China today, but they are only rendered in caricature. There’s the short-haired social high-flyer Lily (Amber Kuo) – who is at once the Queen Bee and a high-finance genius – seeing her relationship with the handsome, rich boy Gu Yuan (Ko Chen-tung) screeching to a halt at the intervention of his mother; there’s the elegant, long-haired beauty Nan Xiang (the Chinese-American Bea Hayden, also known as Kuo Bi-ting) who paints to support her fashion design studies; and finally the chubby clown of the pack, Ruby (Hsieh Yi-lin), who exists nothing more than being a comic foil and whose aspirations in life are never really made certain (apart from her ceaseless moaning of – what else? – not being able to get a boyfriend).

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It’s perhaps apt that the magazine at the center of the film’s narrative is called M.E.: Indeed, Tiny Times has lived up to its title by recoiling from tackling with grand epochal narratives and thriving in its emphasis on an individualistic pursuit of well-being. This flirting with cynicism has, in fact, led to some of the film’s more interesting moments, such as with the lines which (gently) poke fun at A-lister Yang and Guo’s public personas, or the characters’ unflinching acknowledgement about how nepotism works – Lily, for example, citing how a first-year student like herself secured the job of managing the university’s annual fashion awards because she has an uncle in the school hierarchy.

What with its high production values – bolstered (or undermined, depending where one comes from) by equally high-frequency product placements – Tiny Times certainly offers fantastical lifestyles which is nearly unattainable for most of its viewers. But what makes the film even more beguiling is probably its inability to create empathy, as it goes without accounting for where these individuals came from and why their friendships were so rock-solid (which, apparently, wasn’t the case in the novel itself). With its flawed and contrived story (and screenplay), even the fun element becomes forcibly muted – which is why the highlight of the film actually lies in the end-credit sequence, with the cast letting loose as they goof around for the camera.

Opened in limited release in the U.S. on July 26
Production Companies: Star Ritz Productions, Desen International Media; presented with He Li Chen Guang Media, EE-Media, H&R Century Pictures, Beijing Forbidden City Film and Le Vision Pictures
Cast: Mini Yang, Amber Kuo, Ko Chen-tung, Rhydian Vaughan, Hsieh Yi-lin, Bea Hayden (Kuo Bi-ting), Li Ruimin
Director: Guo Jingming
Screenwriter: Guo Jingming
Li Li, An Xiaofen, Adam Tsuei, Zhou Qiang, Angie Chai
Director of photography: Randy Che
Production designer: Huang Wei
Music: Chris Hou
Editor: Ku Hsiao-yin
U.S. Distributor: China Lion
International Sales: Desen International Media
In Putonghua/Mandarin

Running time 115 minutes