By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
When Taiwanese director Tom Lin wanted to make a film based on one of his favorite books, the illustrated tale “Starry Starry Night” by Jimmy Liao, he had a small production in mind. What he got in the end was a richly-budgeted production shared between Taiwan and mainland China, showing a rare example of cooperation between the two governments. The resulting film dazzles the eye and gratifies the soul, demonstrating that perhaps the rival powers should work together more often.
The film stars Jiao Xu as a 13-year-old girl, Mei Xiao, who’s been raised in a home with posters, puzzles, and prints of famous Western paintings covering the walls. At 13, she probably knows more about art and art history than most college students, but a troubled family life leaves her nervous and socially awkward. She wonders how she will ever fit in.
Hui-min Lin plays a new kid named Jay in Mei’s school. Like Mei, Jay doesn’t adapt well to the other children, but unlike Mei, he doesn’t seem to care. He saunters through the halls with a small, satisfied grin, which invites even more dislike from school bullies. Soon, he and Mei adopt each other as friends.
Jiao Xu first earned attention for playing a young boy in her debut film, “CJ7.” She isn’t cast against gender here, but the boldness that allowed her to get away with a male role stays with her. She holds herself back at first, when her character isn’t sure how to come out of her shell. However, her role expands to include sweeping bursts of emotions. She grows emotive, but never overplays or comes off shrill.
Her male counterpart, Hui-min Lin, makes his film debut with “Starry Starry Night.” At first, it seems he can keep his cool better than Mei, but the more he boldly sticks out with his signature smirk, the more he gets hammered down. Jay has some important secrets, and he’ll have to conquer his easy dismissiveness to say what’s really important to him. The young actor seems satisfyingly naturalistic throughout. He may be bound for even greater things.
The visual richness of the film is one of its most conspicuous calling cards. Director Lin and his cinematographer, Jake Pollock, visually orchestrate each scene as a painter would to his or her paintings, interweaving the bright, deep blues of school uniforms with the warm yellows of a lamp light. The images of famous canvases sit half-hidden in pockets of gloomy darkness. It’s one of the most inspired uses of color in recent years.
The story’s use of fantasy also makes it distinctive. The otherworldly elements begin simply in the children’s thoughts. But the fantasies sprout and emerge just as family troubles do. Scenes often encompass whole fantasy lands decorated with the iconography of painted masterpieces. These glide by in huge sweeping panoramas, while terse cuts between the adults in the film accentuate the distance between the parents and their children.
The protagonists delicately straddle their childhood realms of imagination with the beginnings of their adulthood responsibilities. “Starry Starry Night” nails those contradictions with winning lyricism and emotional honesty. (end)
“Starry Starry Night” opens Friday, July 6, at the AMC Pacific Place Theater, 600 Pine Street in downtown Seattle. For prices and showtimes, check local listings or call 1-888-262-4386.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.