Thursday, January 28, 2016

Review - Our Times

January 28, 2016

Our Times – Taiwan, 2015

One of the appeals of Frankie Chen’s Our Times was its promise to take younger viewers back to the days of their youth and remind them of their childhoods. In other words, audience members were supposed to be able to see themselves in the exploits of the film’s lead character, Truly Lin (played by Vivian Sung and later by Joe Chen). Fortunately for the film, Our Times will indeed remind many people of their youth – especially of a time not so long ago when few teenagers had cell phones and many still listened to their favorite singers on cassette tapes. However, unless their youth also involved sending a chain letter to the school bully and then being forced to run his errands as a way of protecting the person whom you really liked from physical harm, that may be the extent of their trip down memory lane. Instead, I suspect that high school was much less dramatic for most people. Mine was made up of homework, a part-time job, participating in school performances, and dealing the occasional (alright, more than just the occasional) case of unrequited love, and the majority of these experiences would hardly make for a compelling plot in a movie. Movies, it is said, need more than just everyday experiences; they also need a certain degree of extraordinary happenstance, and this may be why the story at the heart of Our Times seems hardly specific to anyone’s times.

The film begins in present day Taiwan, where Truly Lin (Chen) is working a thankless job. She has co-workers who can’t stand her and a boss who takes advantage of her work ethic by making her work overtime. She also seems to be in the kind of relationship that leaves people feeling alone and empty, instead of loved and appreciated. One particularly disappointing night, she opens up her memorabilia from high school, and her mind wanders back to that innocent time when she and her friends dreamed of marrying their pop idols and would shriek and cheer for joy while watching the school jocks strut their stuff on the basketball court.

In flashbacks, we see Truly, now played by Sung, fall hard for a popular student named Ou Yang (Dino Lee). The school bully, Taiyu Hsu (well-played by Jerry Yan), realizes this and threatens to hurt him if Truly doesn’t become his personal assistant. She reluctantly agrees, and for a time, we are treated to scene after scene of her running errands for him and being disrespected for her efforts. Mind you, all of this is scored to the kind of music that one usually associates with comedy. The problem is there’s nothing funny going on, and this created an unpleasant feeling in me. Was I supposed to laugh at her misfortune simply because of her socially awkward mannerisms and occasional prat falls while roller skating? Of course, it is only a matter of time until the two of them become friends and decide to help each other pair up with their respective love interests, Ouyang and Min-min (Dewi Chien), who just happen to be flirting with becoming a couple themselves.

The misadventures that follow are somewhat silly and occasionally fun, and I admit to enjoying watching the two of them growing closer. The film is also greatly helped by the performances of its two stars, who give the film a great deal of effort and energy. Sadly, their efforts are not entirely rewarded. One problem is that we’ve seen much of this before, and we’ve seen it in better movies. First, the film makes Truly one of those “ugly duckling” characters, the kind that we know will look better if she just does something different with her hair and tries a different style of dress, a la Strictly Ballroom. The characters’ attempts at matchmaking are reminiscent of those in Roxanne and Cyrano de Bergerac, and viewers familiar with Taiwanese films will likely marvel at the similarities between this movie and 2014’s You Are the Apple of My Eye, a sweet film that feels slightly more realistic than this one and one that also makes use of a montage to remind viewers of what came before and allow them to see it in a slightly different way. Yet, the technique only works if what is revealed later significantly alters one’s perceptions of earlier events; regrettably, here it mainly reinforces what we already knew and what is new doesn’t entirely gel with what we thought we knew. This film is also saddled with a disappointing ending – two of them in fact – and a guest appearance that comes across as the director showing off just how much clout he has rather than bringing the narrative to a logical conclusion.

None of this completely succeeds in taking down Our Times. No, the lead actors are working too hard for that to take place. It should also be said that the film indeed gets better as it goes along, yet even in the second half, I found myself fluctuating between caring about the characters and being frustrated by the inclusion of so many one-dimensional characters and cinematic clichés. At one point, an auditorium is abuzz with protests, each protester endeavoring to make their voices heard, only for every one of them to be silent on cue so that Truly can preach to the director of the school about her unwillingness to be controlled by his strict regulations. In a scene from the first half of the film, the director elects to use animation to explain Truly’s thought process instead of trusting Sung to convey these feelings through actual dialogue. In another scene, the director speeds up the image to show how quickly some teenagers flee on their scooters after Taiyu is rather painfully rejected by Min-min. Such uses of exaggeration do nothing to make the film more realistic, but at least the director was having fun.

The second half of the film works much better, yet it is telling that it achieves this by jettisoning the very techniques that proved so infuriating in the first half. We are allowed to hear the actors instead of seeing animated versions of their thoughts, and the film slows down just enough for us to connect with the characters and see in them qualities that we likely recognize in our own old friends and acquaintances. We also learn what has made Taiyu what he is today, and I felt a great deal of sympathy for him as a result. Not everything works of course, but just enough does to give Our Times a marginal pass. (on DVD and Blu-ray in Region 3)

3 stars

*Our Times is in Mandarin and Min Nan with occasionally incorrect English subtitles.

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