Thursday, August 2, 2012

Review - Starry Starry Night

August 2, 2012

Starry Starry Night – Taiwan, 2011

Tom Lin’s second directorial effort is a wonderfully frustrating film – wonderful because of it focus on two realistic, sympathetic characters, and frustrating because just when it should be taking its story seriously, it turns inward in a way that is neither believable nor entirely interesting. Like many recent Taiwanese films, the film uses the rather vivid imaginations of its lead characters as a way of adding fantasy to what would otherwise be a serious drama. Here, the characters’ imaginations create a colorful world filled with living paper crane animals and one rather large blue elephant that is missing a leg, and in a few scenes, these make-belief creatures walk side by side them, much like they do Uncle Remus in Song of the South. I didn’t mind these moments so much, for they came off as fairly true portraits of how children use their imaginations. However, I have a hard time buying into a character being surprised by the fantastic images that her brain comes up with and interacting with them as if they were new to her. Most of the time, we control the images we see in our head; we do not watch them outside a window and marvel at their surprising, spontaneous nature.

The pity is that the film’s reliance on these dream-like, fantasy images undercuts its more serious undertones, for what we have in Starry Starry Night is two characters who are in danger of withdrawing within themselves so much that it would take quite a long time for even the most experienced psychiatrists to draw them back out. In fact, the film has many elements found in movies about great quests, only in this film, the quest is not riches or fame, but happiness and family. In one of the most touching moments of the film, the two of them lie on a pair of benches in an abandoned, run-down church and relate the events that have led them to be who they are. They are experiences that no child should ever have.

The two teenagers at the heart of the film are Mei (Jiao Xu) and Jie (Hui Ming Lin). Towards the beginning of the film, we learn that Mei has been spending a lot of time with her grandfather, played by Kenneth Tsang. Her grandfather lives in the mountains in one of those homes that seems straight out of a fairy tale. In fact, the first time I laid eyes on it, it gave me flashbacks of Geppetto’s workshop in Pinocchio. Therefore, it is easy to see why Mei is so attached to both her grandfather and the magical place he resides in. Making it even more appealing is what awaits her back in the big city – a family in complete disarray. During an early pivotal scene, Mei’s mother (Rene Liu) is too distracted by an imminent phone call to give her daughter the attention she deserves. When the call does come, we watch as Mei sees her mother become emotionally undone by the news that a trip to Paris has been cancelled at the last minute. Only a few things can cause such a sudden switch in emotion, and when Mei’s mother proclaims she wants to be left alone in her room, we can pretty much tell what has happened.

As for Jie, he is a quiet one, preferring to spend time drawing in the large red sketchbook that he carries around with him. His last name is Chou, and if you know anything about the Taiwanese pop music scene, you’ll immediately recognize the potential teasing that this name could bring him. In one of the film’s most tender moments, we see Jie peering down from his upper-floor apartment at a chorus of Christmas carolers going around the neighboring spreading good cheer. In his hands he holds a white recorder, which he is playing perfectly in sync with the carolers below. It is in this moment that Mei recognizes a kindred spirit, a person who has also withdrawn inward and uses his imagination to get by. The two eventually form a rather special friendship.

In other films, a set-up such as this one would begin a tale of two characters coming of age, perhaps even developing their first crushes. Lin, who wrote the screenplay, wisely avoids this. While other characters, including Mei’s mother, speak of relationships and spread rumors of the two of them kissing, the relationship between them actually remains platonic, as it should. These are characters in need of friends, not lovers, and to their credit, they seem to understand that. Even when there are circumstance that could lead them into a moment of awkward intimacy, all they can do is reach out for the other’s hand, and when this happens, it is an act of camaraderie, not passion.

The revelation in the film is young Jiao Xu, who shows a maturity well beyond her years. Just 14 at the time she made the film, Xu is called upon to react to the figments of Mei’s imagination and convince the audience that she really sees them, and she succeeds every time. There are also moments when she must summon tears and pain in response to situations that if there is any justice in the world she has not experienced so far in her short life. Again she is thoroughly convincing. A scene in a restaurant is noteworthy for the range of emotions that she shows in it. In it, Mei starts out shy and embarrassed. Then she surrenders to the joy of dancing with her mother in public, only to change again when her mother continues dancing even after the music has stopped. It is as if her mother is refusing to let go of the joy that this dance and all the memories accompanying it have brought her. Jiao Xu’s response is perfect, and it tells us more about Mei’s mother than any flashback or narration could ever hope to.

As sweet and touching as the film is, it is slightly undone by the film’s erroneous use of imaginary images and its decision to allow Mei to narrate certain moments of the film. The problem is that Lin’s script calls for Mei to deliver a message that is global instead of personal, as if Mei were representative of every child in the world and could deliver a plea for better treatment on their behalf. The message, already clear by that point in the film, should have been left implied. Also disappointing is the film’s final act, which takes viewers into the future. Here a grown Mei, played by Lunmei Kwai, walks the streets of Paris with her younger sister and discovers something that seems far too coincidental to be believable. It’s as if Lin didn’t trust his audience to handle ambiguity. So instead of having an ending that treats the audience respectfully, like that of Lin’s previous film, Winds of September, Starry Starry Night ends with an unrealistic act of symbolism instead of truth. It’s a mistake, and it almost undoes what is otherwise a moving tale about two extremely likeable characters. (on DVD in Region 3 and Blu-ray in Hong Kong)

3 and a half stars

*Starry Starry Night is in Chinese with English subtitles.

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