How does one recreate a story that seems like it’s been told time and time again in a way that is nevertheless able to tug on audience’s heartstrings? This would be a great question to ask Frankie Chen, director of the Taiwanese blockbuster hit Our Times which is swiftly spreading its influence not just around Taiwan, but around the globe. On first impression, it seems to just be another rip-off of Giddens Ko’s 2011 hit You’re the Apple of My Eye. Same time frame, both set in high school settings and centred around the romance between a girl and a boy, both films share many similar elements which explains my initial impression. However, it was the huge impact that the film had on audiences around me that caught my attention and urged me to rethink my stance on the film. In the process, I became more and more curious and ultimately couldn’t help but watch it myself to find out what the whole fuss was about. Two hours later, a soggy tissue and eyes so swollen that my mother would, if she was here, referred to me as having cried “as if someone just died”, I think I’ve come to a conclusion.
All in all, it was a good film with a little bit of everything thrown in for good measure. Following the perspective of a nerdy high school girl Lin Zhen Xin (Vivian Sung) who has a special crush on her idol Andy Lau, the whole story starts off with Lin’s older self thinking back to her high school years. Lin sends three chain mail letters to classmates and teachers including school belle Tao Min Min (played by Dewi Chien) and school gangster Xu Tai Yu (Wang Da Lu), all due to her feelings for the handsomest boy in school, Ouyang Fei Fan (Dino Lee). After receiving the letter Xu gets into a car accident and finds out who the letter was mailed out by. He befriends Lin and through a series of events they become closer and closer in helping each other chase their respective crushes. I won’t spoil the rest for you, but during the course of the movie we find out about all Xu has done for Lin without ever revealing his feelings to her, which leads to some major feels on my part.
I’d have to say the biggest highlight of Our Times for me would most definitely be the acting. Despite whatever crazy, unrealistically romantic things happened throughout the film, it was easily gobbled up by the audience due very much to the emotional connection that main actors Sung and Wang forged from the start of the film. No matter through their body language, facial expression or interactions with each other, the cast made each and every scene of the movie flow naturally into one another. Sung especially should be commended for making her role as a silly schoolgirl immensely relatable for fangirling audiences such as myself, leaving me whispering constantly to my friends, much to their embarassment “It’s me! It’s me!”. From her hugging of Andy Lau cardboard cut outs to her loyalty to her friends, Sung built up her character fluidly and solidly, rendering her character immensely lovable. Wang as the resident bad boy had this undeniable air about him that suited his character to a T. Playing his role with 100% conviction and laser-like focus, unlike Sung’s character whose challenge was maintaining a strong rapport with audiences, the challenge for Wang lay in the constant character developments he was constantly having to internalize throughout the movie. This was one aspect in which he performed extremely well, provoking a smooth transition throughout crucial scenes in the movie. The pair had an amazing set of chemistry which moved the audience to tears, forging a very special emotional connection that could not be faked even if they tried.
The film was well directed for a directorial debut, which did well in helping Our Times navigate smoothly and logically throughout the many different stories within the overall story. With the amount of twists and turns in this storyline, I have to say being able to do just this was a feat in itself. There were also some really interesting shots that really provided a window into the personalities of the characters, rendering them more relatable and easier to understand, however I believe at times the direction was too longwinded, including shots that were unnecessary to moving the storyline forward. Furthermore, some of the special effects used at the beginning were a little off on image for the movie, borrowing from too-comical and artificial special effects such as CGI-ing a tombstone into the background and using special graphics to mimic a move back into the past. The latter especially was unnecessary and confused viewers, thinking there was some kind of special magic transporting main character Lin into the past, when it was all in fact a memory, something that was clearly signposted beforehand.
Production-wise, Our Times was well-scripted and contextualized, managing to create an aesthetically pleasing image of Taiwan during the 1990s while keeping things fresh and new. I especially appreciated the effort they put into scouting and creating sets that adhered accurately to Taiwan’s history, such as the illegal movie rooms of Taiwan in the 1990s, and of course student experiences of studying at various cafes and of course McDonalds. I believe the discourse and teenage slang used by the cast within the movie would not be unfamiliar to Taiwanese audiences who had experienced high schooling during that period too. The comedic elements of the movie were integrated solidly and were neither too artificial nor too dark, keeping the film lighthearted and fresh. However one big issue I had with casting was the casting of Joe Chen and Jerry Yan as the older versions of Lin and Xu within the movie. I see no reason why the talented actors could not have just played older versions of themselves, and to me it just seemed like a commercial gimmick to up the starpower of the movie, which instead cut short the connection audiences had been building with Sung and Wang. A huge oversight on the part of the production crew which should not have happened, rendering the ending less resonant and to me, unfinished which is never a good thing.
However the largest issue that I found with the movie was that its plotline was too convoluted. Although good direction managed to somewhat alleviate the effects of convoluted plotlines, by the end of the movie my mind was left reeling at what exactly had just happened. There were just too many little stories that had to be pieced together to make the big story. In a way, it was directed more like a mini TV series than a movie, which I guess is an interesting notion, but still a confusing one for me. Each of the little stories were immensely entertaining, both making me laugh and cry, but there were a few that seemed unnecessary. One such development in the story was the introduction of a new principle to the school. Although it really involved the audience in the story and created an uplifting sense of school spirit, it really had nothing to do with the story and only showed minimal growth in the relationship between Xu and Lin. If they wanted to find a reason for Xu’s character to leave, I’m sure there could have been a more succinct way to do it, rather than introducing an entirely new character and set of events when the story was just getting interesting. I’d say the repetition of the roller skating theme throughout the movie really could have been done without. It being a place where Xu first had a gang fight, it created negative connotations in the minds of audiences that were hard to break and caused conflict when it was instead used as a poignant and important symbol of the blossoming of the two main characters’ romantic relationship. It seems to be a little bit of a dichotomy for me; although I thoroughly enjoyed every part of the movie, when you actually put it together suddenly it doesn’t seem as whole, as complete anymore.
One area of the film which I felt it did consistently poor in was its soundtrack and music choice. The only standout point was the use of Hebe Tien’s “Little Luck” as the song which heralded an emotional montage of memories for main character Lin near to the end of the movie. Bittersweet yet pure, the song fit the movie like a glove. However, I couldn’t say the same for many of the other songs used in the soundtrack. Populady’s song “You Said Her” was poppy and very modern, almost forgetting the sensitive timeframe that the movie worked in. Furthermore, the soundtrack also consisted of fragments of random piano tinklings, sound effects and at one point, even an instrumental arrangement of what sounded like Maroon 5’s “Sugar”, a point of irritation and distraction for me that was abrupt and unwarranted.
It seems that the creative team failed to look at the entire film as a whole. Although each of the small segments were done well and a pleasure to watch, as a whole there were some holes and cracks that formed. Nevertheless, Our Times was a pleasure to watch, and judging by the amount of tears I cried, this is not just another You’re the Apple of My Eye, but another movie in its own right, with its own unique sense of feminine perspectives and a more lighthearted style of nostalgia. A film that was immensely relatable, humorous yet touching. However, I’m pretty sure no man would ever chase me for twenty years and hold an Andy Lau concert just so he could see me again. Just saying.
Review Score: 7.5 out of 10