Hardly ever do the diverse elements of film production blend so seamlessly and appeal to such a wide audience as they do in Starry Starry Night, a recent Taiwan-China co-production. Based on a childrens’ picture book by world-famous Taiwanese artist Jimmy Liao and directed by Taiwan’s Tom Lin, this is one of the best films of the year.
“Coming of age” movies is a sub-genre in most film cultures, mainly because the often painful and confusing time between childhood and young adulthood is a path travelled by nearly everyone. But that doesn’t stop the majority of film producers from tackling this subject via the lowest common denominator — thus making people wince when they see the tag “coming of age film.”
Hong Kong film-makers have a good track record with this type of movie. In the past two decades three of the best are: Eric Tsang’s amusing and wholly engaging Those Were the Days; Clara Law’s deeply felt Autumn Moon and Lawrence Ah-Mon’s provocative Spacked Out. They are memorable films which, at their heart, explore the yin-yang of burgeoning adulthood.
Starry Starry Night is a showcase of Taiwan’s contemporary film-making talent. This is director Tom Lin’s second feature and he looks set for much exposure on the international film festival circuit, and teen star Josie Xu has come a long way in a short time. Her debut as Stephen Chow’s young “son” in CJ7 has led to regular work since and now to a lead role.
Xu is Xiao Mei a thirteen year old student living with her middle class parents in Taipei. Her family life is fractious with her mother (Rene Liu) and father (Harlem Yu) on the cusp of divorce. Her kindly grandfather (Kenneth Tsang) is the only person she is able to confide in, but he lives in a faraway rural wonderland which Mei regularly fantasies about visiting.
Into the mix comes Jay (Eric Lin), a nerdy new arrival to Mei’s class, who has an interest and ability in artwork. Mei is attracted to this budding painter and empathy grows when she finds out he and his mother are also from a broken family. Soon their emotional pain is juxtaposed with the physical cruelty they suffer in the schoolyard. Their growing attraction to each other is realistically portrayed with situations and feelings that will be readily identified with by the audience.
With their outer worlds only growing darker, Mei and Jay escape the urban jungle. With more than a casual nod to Little Red Riding Hood, they set out on an adventure to find her grandfather’s house.
The creative input of director, artist and CGI team has produced first class fantasy sequences which are well-integrated into the story. Wisely, the CGI eschews the “look at me” style of Pixar and Dreamworks, instead providing a lively, grounded series of fantasy sequences which have the feel of — dare I say it — a magic realism. Whether it be a snow shower in a railway station or shadow play reflecting a character’s psychological state, they never seem or feel obtrusive or extraneous to the story.
This film definitely seeks a wider non-Asian audience with its many cross cultural references, the main one being European art. Van Gogh’s Starry Night is an ongoing motif in the movie and plays an important part in the narrative.
The Director of Photography, Jake Pollock, is a star on the rise in Asian cinema. American born and trained in cinematography at NYU, he then did a Chris Doyle and moved to Taiwan to begin a film-making career. He is now an in-demand cameraman with recent features like the Taiwan street gang pic Monga and Peter Chan’s kung-fu detective flick Wu Xia highlighting his skills.
His images and framing in Starry Starry Night are reason enough to see this movie but, again, it’s the way his work blends so well with the story telling. Pollock’s coverage of rural Taiwan is dreamlike but cleverly interspersed with panic filled fragments of a waking nightmare.
Add to this the film’s music from Japanese composer Katsuhiko Maeda which lingers long in the mind after the movie has finished.
Starry Starry Night ends at Christmas time in Paris where the streets are lightly dusted with falling snowflakes. A child observes something unusual, which leads to the final piece of Xiao Mei’s journey falling beautifully into place — and is a moment of pure cinema enchantment. And not to be missed!