Photo courtesy Reel Asian International Film Festival
by MEI LING CHEN
Director Frankie Chen’s much-anticipated feature film debut, Our Times, is an exercise in nostalgia for everyone who grew up with Walkmans and in-line skating in the 1990s. Present-day Truly Lin (Joe Chen) is unhappy with her dead-end job and unsatisfying relationship. She reminisces about her time as an 18-year-old schoolgirl (Vivian Sung) and tells her story as a self-proclaimed “ordinary girl” in Taiwan. With her bushy hair and glasses, Truly makes it known that she’s not the popular girl. That role belongs to Tao Minmin (Dewi Chien).
Rounding out the cast is her crush, Ouyang Extraordinary (Dino Lee), and bad boy, Hsu Taiyu (Darren Wang). In a misguided attempt to protect Ouyang, she ends up becoming Taiyu’s errand girl. Taiyu and Truly will eventually fall for each other, but both start out as caricatures instead of real people. Truly is cast as clumsy and naïve. Her constant penchant for falling down is played for laughs and not as endearing as the film desperately wants it to be. Meanwhile, Taiyu builds a reputation as the school bully and treats Truly horribly. His change in behaviour comes so abruptly, and without real cause that it’s obvious it was more to move the story forward than to build character.
Chen made a name for herself as a producer of TV dramas, and it shows in Our Times. In addition to the slapstick humour, there are enough storylines for a full TV season, and each are cliché, high-school fare. In a span of two hours, there is a rumble with a rival school, a teen tragedy, a break-up plot, a makeover, a ruthless school administrator, an “I am Spartacus” type scene, a water balloon fight and a serious illness. And that’s on top of the overarching love story. These plotlines are tied together loosely and make for a convoluted film. This all culminates in a series of revealing flashbacks that took longer than needed.
The ultimate saving grace of the film, however, are the actors. Wang and Sung have great chemistry together, and once they are allowed to stop playing caricatures, they become fully realized characters. As Truly, Sung’s emotions feel genuine and her tears are heartbreaking. Wang plays Taiyu with a confident swagger, but it’s in his vulnerability that truly shines. Between their lingering looks and shy smiles, Wang and Sung succeed in reminding us of our first love. Unfortunately, the strong cast is unable to make up for the poor storytelling and inconceivable plotlines.