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Xu Jiao burst onto the entertainment scene thanks to Stephen Chow casting her as his son in the CG comedy CJ7, and now as a teenager this marks her first venture into the teenage romantic genre as a girl who's at the cusp of teenagedom, where life is at a crossroads and everything good seems to be falling apart. Directed by Tom Lin, Starry Starry Night comes hot off the heels of successful Taiwanese films and had promise of a deeply emotional film about first love, if not for precisely that which is found to be wanting and missing, where its technical strengths far outstrips its narrative merits, which is a pity.
The story is broadly split into the three act structure, the first which deals with the relationship between Mei (Xu Jiao, also known as Josie now), her parents (played by Harlem Yu and Rene Liu), and her grandfather (Kenneth Tsang) with whom she is the closest to, having been making wonderful wooden animal doll carvings for her to lift her spirits. Her parents are incessantly arguing and are mulling over a divorce, with the cracks showing since Mom is increasingly disconnected from the real world, opting instead in aspiring to be French, through song, dance and plenty of wine. And Dad is well, just plain unavailable. We see how the strong family nucleus break down in a montage sequence, and that alone allows the suggestion that Mei is that kid who has withdrawn into her own private world where fantasy becomes reality, and allows for plenty of CG creations to be put on screen for that wow factor.
In some ways her imagination coming alive almost boasts of being Gondry-ish in execution, with famous watercolour paintings coming alive to fill the landscapes Mei lives in, and objects in her everyday life such as animal origami crafts and wood carvings all taking a Toy Story turn to accompany the lonely heart in her, pushing the boundaries as much as her imagination could carry. That is until the next segment of the story where she gets smitten with the new kid on the block who happens to be in the same class. Jay (newcomer Eric Lin Hui Ming) is that real artistic kid with the penchant for nude drawings, music and just about all things wonderful to Mei. They form a fast friendship especially since Jay becomes the pushover by bullies in school, and Mei moves from one emotional crutch that her parents no longer can fulfill, to that of young love with the presence of Jay, culminating in the expectation that the two kids will inevitably form bonds that are stronger than just plain platonic friendship. Alas the direction here became a little bit lazy, with proceedings almost being rote on screen, lacking real and strong emotions to hook you into the story and feel for the characters' connection with each other.
And this unfortunately continued into the final act where the children take off into a journey to the woods in search of the wooden lodge of Mei's grandfather, giving rise to countless of opportunities where we can journey with the kids and drown in the magnitude of their combined imagination. What could have been romantically reminiscent of what young puppy love to be, turned out to be a rather technical exercise instead, going through a road trip without much of a feel for the characters, and lacking genuine spontaneity that one would expect from children. The duo of Josie and Eric did their best and shared some believable chemistry together, but even that can only work so much in the absence of a strong story and the conspicuous absence of emotions that can touch your heart.
While the story may not have been much, Starry Starry Night befits its artistic basis, theme and origin having come from an illustrated book by Jimmy Liao, as the visuals here is what would arrest your attention when the narrative starts to fail and sag. Director of Photography James Pollack, who also lensed diverse films such as Wuxia, Monga, Pinoy Sunday and The Message, deserves every bit of the credit here for pulling off the capture of all things beautiful in the film, making it all look dreamy and fantastical where it mattered, and stark and harsh when things start to go downhill. The art direction also deserves mention for making the pages of the book leap from page to screen, and comparisons can be made even if you've not read or seen the book, because the closing credits, one of the most beautiful sequences created from simplicity and reminiscent of a number of Japanese films that also shared origins from Manga, put up images from the book in narrative order, and you can tell the effort by the filmmakers that went in to stay true in spirit as much as possible to its source.
Starry Starry Night had all the trappings of a solid romantic film about first love woven around art, but that was not to be. There were glimpses of what it could have been, with Kwai Lun- Mei taking over the Mei role for the short epilogue that finally lifted it from its doldrums of a final act that seemed to head nowhere, and to get there you will have to suffer through its rather dry development rather than be inspired or moved by the masterpieces it got inspired by.
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