Director: Lin Shu Yu
Cast: Rene Liu, Josie Xu Jiao, Harlem Yu, Eric Lin, Kwai Lun Mei
RunTime: 1 hr 39 mins
Released By: GV
Rating: PG (Brief Nudity)
Opening Day: 1 December 2011
Synopsis: She will never forget the summer when she was 12 years old, the night with the most beautiful starry sky she has ever seen…. Mei, a twelve year old girl, used to live with her grandparents up in the mountains where the stars were most beautiful. After she was taken back to the city, she has been having a hard time both at home and at school. Her only escape is through her memory of those starry nights. One day, Mei meets the transfer student, Jay, who seems more detached from the world than she is. Together, they try to face their problems, but things only got worse when Mei’s parents announce their divorce and ask her to choose who to live with. Mei and Jay decide to run away from home to see the stars she missed so dearly. In the mountains, they get lost, they quarrel, they get caught in a storm, but they also find the most splendid night in their life…
Pretty as they may be, the illustrated books by Taiwan’s Jimmy Liao don’t lend themselves easily to big-screen adaptations- chiefly because they often do not have a compelling narrative or characters to begin with. Rather, the often gorgeous illustrations are meant to evoke childlike sentiments on the part of their readers, transporting them on magical flights of fantasy drawn from imagination. The popular children’s book ‘Starry Starry Night’ that tells a bittersweet story between two teenagers who find solace in each other’s company is no different- and for better as well as for worse, this adaptation shares many of the book’s characteristics.
The central character is 13-year old schoolgirl Mei (played by Mainland actress Josie Xu), the only child caught in an unhappy marriage (her parents played by Harlem Yu and Rene Liu) who longs for the time she spent in the mountains with her ailing grandfather (Kenneth Tsang). Mei finds a fellow companion in her new schoolmate Jay (Eric Lin making his feature debut), the latter similarly hailing from a broken family. Despite an initial misunderstanding where Mei accidentally lets slip Jay’s sketchbook to their classmates, the pair become good friends after being assigned to decorate their classroom for a school competition.
Writer Tom Lin Shu-Yu grounds his film on their coming-of-age story, as both Mei and Jay find comfort in each other’s company and learn to deal with the difficult circumstances in their own lives. In between their gentle bonding, Lin also fills the screen with Mei’s imagination. The paper animals Mei and Jay fold for their classroom decoration competition come to life as they take a stroll along the street, while a train they take to the mountains to visit Mei’s grandfather flies into a CG-rendered dreamscape based on Van Gogh’s seminal ‘Starry Night’ painting. That visit also marks the culmination of their journey together, just so Mei can relive her childhood memories of gazing at the star-filled night sky up in the mountains.
As should be expected, the blend between the real and the fantastical is beautiful, and the intended adventure of childhood imagination comes alive vividly- complemented in no small measure by Jake Pollock’s fine cinematography. But whenever the film falls back to reality to portray the human drama between the leads, it also falls flat. One never gets to understand the reason for the unhappiness behind Mei’s parents’ marriage; nor the melancholy behind Jay’s equally despondent family- instead, we are asked to accept the discontent pair and the joy they discover with each other.
That’s a shame really, for the film seems to hint at some deeper societal malaise regarding broken families and the resultant fallout on their children- nonetheless, Tom largely glosses over these issues, and the film is therefore as shallow as a pretty picture book. His leads are also too dull to bring their respective characters to life- Xu, who once played the exuberant boy in Stephen Chow’s ‘ CJ7’ is muted and quite lifeless; while Lin mostly just lets his head down and talks curtly, conveying little beyond these physical expressions. They too lack the spark needed to make the budding romance between their characters come alive.
Without much by way of story and character, the movie only occasionally comes to life whenever our adolescent leads embark on their flights of fancy. These are unfortunately not enough to sustain a movie, especially not one which begs your indulgence for a ten-minute epilogue that sees Mei grown up as a young adult (Gwei Lun-Mei in a guest appearance) walking through the streets of Paris and chancing upon a jigsaw puzzle shop that bears special significance. The feelings it tries to impress upon its audience turn up ultimately hollow- and indeed, this is a film as good as the book it is based on, so you’re probably better off reading that instead.
(Pretty to look at, but emotionally hollow, this adaptation of Jimmy Liao’s illustrated book is nothing more than a visual feast)
Review by Gabriel Chong