You Are the Apple of My Eye
I wasn't sure if I wanted to watch this, or having watched it, review it. Owing to my slow reviewing rate, I've had to miss out on a lot of movies lately (Immortals, Happy Feet 2, Puss in Boots), and I still have a ways to go before I can catch up to the latest releases. And Chinese-language films are a low priority for me - but three things kept nagging me to watch You Are the Apple of my Eye: LoveHKFilm's review, glowing comments from the Lowyat.net crowd, and the fact that tickets are still selling out almost a month after its release. (Oh, and also because that similarly-named Stevie Wonder song keeps getting stuck in my head.)
I'm glad I did. But while local Chinese teenagers may think this the best movie of the year, my response is a little more muted.
It is 1994, and Ko Ching-Teng (Ko Chen-Tung) is 16 and a senior in high school. All his best friends - Boner (Yen Sheng-Yu), Ah Ho (Hao Shao-Wen), Cock (Ao-Chuan) and Groin (Tsai Chang-Hsien) - have a crush on the class top student Shen Chia-Yi (Michelle Chen), but Ko-Teng has little interest in pursuing girls. Until one day he is caught in an, um, indiscretion, and the principal assigns Chia-Yi to "keep an eye on him". She decides to help him with his studies, and thus begins a friendship amongst her, the boys, and her best friend Hu Chia-Wei (Wan Wan) that lasts through high school, college and adulthood. And through the years, Ko-Teng and Chia-Yi dance around their feelings for each other, that change as they both mature.
I'm not a big anime fan, but one anime series I unreservedly love is Azumanga Daioh. It's about the everyday lives of a group of highschool girls (and lemme tellya, it ain't easy for a grown man to admit to liking a show about that), and aside from being side-splittingly hilarious, it's also a gorgeously nostalgic look at the simple and so much more innocent days of school. I mention this because You Are the Apple of My Eye evokes the same nostalgia, when studying, exam results, classroom pranks, hanging out after school, and teenage crushes were all you had to worry about. It's also frequently very funny, and its humour of a particularly crude nature owing to the fact that these are a bunch of horny teenage boys. The indiscretion Ko-Teng is caught for is a synchronized masturbation act with Boner in the middle of class, which now that I think of it, is a stunt that one or two reprobates from my own school might well have pulled off. (Heh heh, pun totally intended.)
But that's just the first half of the movie. The second follows Ko-Teng after the group splits up to different universities and he and Chia-Yi keep up a long-distance never-quite-romantic relationship, and this part tends to drag. For one thing, it spends more time on Ko-Teng's quirky uni roommates (that aren't as likable as his highschool buddies) than on how the central romance progresses. For another, the progression of the central romance isn't very interesting. It isn't very clear how they both mature and drift apart, and the interlude about Ko-Teng organising an underground fight tournament feels like a totally different movie. Also, it glosses over the other boys' equally heartfelt feelings for Chia-Yi. For all that it's adept at creating individually touching moments - e.g. the phone conversation between Ko-Teng and Chia-Yi on the night of the 921 earthquake, gorgeously lit by moonlight - its insights are really kinda shallow.
Which is a characteristic of how Asian movies and TV dramas handle romance as a whole. I've often mentioned how the biggest difference between Asian and western film is that the former is never afraid to go for shameless melodrama, and I've also mentioned how this works on me just fine - when done well. You Are the Apple of My Eye does it pretty damn good, and it helps a lot that it aims for bittersweetness rather than overblown cornball. But it isn't immune to the weakness of substituting sentimentality for real depth. It also portrays a very Asian approach to love and romance, in which the male is expected to "confess" his feelings for the girl and "pursue" her until she "accepts" him - and let's face it, that's an annoyingly juvenile way to go about it. Part of the reason why the second half drags is that you'd expect Ko-Teng to man up and just tell Chia-Yi how he feels about her, but he still can't bring himself to even admit that spending a day together is a "date".
But hey, I suppose that's how it's really like for lovestruck Taiwanese teenagers. And I suppose that's how it really happened for Giddens, the blogger-turned-novelist-turned-first-time-director who is adapting his own autobiographical novel. Giddens is a pop culture phenomenon in Taiwan - as is Wan Wan, a popular webcomic artist who plays a fictionalised teenage version of herself here - and both may account for the movie's record-breaking box office over there. But he's really quite good for a fledgling director, employing flashy CGI visual gags with panache yet proving equally capable at the quiet emotional moments. And he found the perfect two actors to play both his cinematic self and his teenage first love. The coincidentally-named Ko Chen-Tung has terrific screen presence, and Michelle Chen is luminous in just that exact girl-next-door high-school-first-love kind of way. Boys and girls alike will fall head over heels for one or the other of them in droves.
While the broad strokes of the storyline succeeds at tugging the heartstrings, it's a pity that a movie that spans a 10-year unrequited romance doesn't quite have as mature a viewpoint as you'd expect it to. But I'll be honest here: teenage TMBF was as much a besotted fool over one girl or another as Giddens/Ko-Teng, and You Are the Apple of My Eye did a marvelous job of taking me back to those days. In fact, I considered giving it 4 stars, if only because it gave me that rare feeling of being so charming and enjoyable that I didn't want the movie to end. Which, yes, is rare. (By the way, you might want to watch this on DVD instead of in cinemas. The Censorship Board has been at work here, snipping off some of the more off-colour jokes as well as the bits where Ko-Teng walks around his house stark naked. Fortunately, one hilarious bit involving the English F-word is intact, and is guaranteed to bring the house down.)
NEXT REVIEW: Misteri Jalan Lama
Expectations: yay Afdlin Shauki doing... fantasy?