Starry Starry Night
Synopsis: Mei (Josie Jiao Xu), a 13-year-old girl, used to live with her grandparents up in the mountains where the stars were most beautiful. After she was taken back to the city, she has been having a hard time both at home and at school. Her only escape is through her memory of those starry nights. Mei meets the transfer student, Jay (Eric Hui Ming Lin), who seems more detached from the world than she is. Together, they try to face their problems, but things only got worse when Mei’s parents announce their divorce and ask her to choose who to live with. Mei and Jay decide to run away from home to see the stars she missed so dearly.
A touching, inventive look at a young girl's evolution.
Lin’s fluid visual style is reminiscent of animation
What’s so good about Tom Lin’s Starry Starry Night, a lovely Taiwanese drama about a young Taipei girl doing it tough in the face of her parents divorce and the death of a loved one, is that it locks you up in a child’s dream – and that turns out to be a great place to hang out. Fantasy, so often a destructive force in movies about adults, is here, a thing of liberation. Whenever Mei (Josie Xu), an earnest and good-natured teen, hits an emotional wall, her imagination breaks through and the movie spins off with her.
Lin’s movie, based on a bestselling book by illustrator Jimmy Liao, is a story of big themes and small moments and it has the adorable quality of maintaining a tremulous, butterfly-in-the-stomach kind of feeling throughout its fast 90-odd minutes. It has that rare and much sought after mood, by both movie fan and filmmaker, where you sense that anything can happen.
The film’s airy mystique is delicate. It’s like what we’re seeing and hearing on screen is leaping, uncensored and direct from the restless, fanciful psyche of its heroine. The images and sounds are rich and oversized. It’s like Mei’s dream life, so alive with whimsy and sparkle, is doing battle with her real life, which is small, arid, confusing and impossibly bleak.
Deliberately episodic, the film has a lovely rhythm that settles in quick and spell-like. Lin’s script sketches in key points carefully and succinctly; Mei’s love for her grandfather, who lives in the woods in a fairytale setting and hand crafts special gifts for her, and Mei’s quiet terror as he succumbs to a fatal illness; her parent’s bitter breakup is brilliantly handled in a series of short, stabbing dinner table scenes of endless silences and mysterious phone calls.
Real life ultimately provides Mei with a pal who can appreciate her pain and love of whimsy. Jay (Eric Lin Hui Ming) is the new kid at school. Mysterious, and quiet, in the kind of way that makes other kids keep their distance, Mei senses a kindred spirit. Jay, like Mei, is talented, a little precocious and has troubles at home and thus a romance is inevitable. Late in the movie the pair take off into the woods, so that Mei can, in some way, recapture a childhood that she fears is fast slipping away. The climax is bittersweet and lovely.
Lin’s fluid visual style, where images converge in a free associative sort of way, is reminiscent of animation: a snowflake becomes a tear in Mei’s eye; a toy elephant is re-imagined full-size when Mei’s heartache over her dying grandfather becomes overwhelming; a train ride out of town becomes a little flight into a night fantasy of perfect stars and an inky crystalline sky. All of this is delivered expertly by CGI craftspeople; but unlike most films that could be termed ‘effects based’, the ultimate impact is emotional, immersive. Watching it I felt I was ‘inside’ the effects here, not merely observing them.
The film’s title derives from a key plot point. Mei has a love of jigsaw puzzles based on famous paintings. ‘Starry Night’ by Van Gogh is one of her favourites but there’s a piece missing. Some critics have complained that this kind of story device is twee at best, bogus at worst. I don’t think so at all; for me, it’s a really beautiful and poetic way to express the kind of excessive sentimentality teens so often attach to seemingly small and significant bits of stuff. It’s a feeling that mixes up memory and hope, pain and loss.
Still, Lin, it seems to me, has an open heart when it comes to his adult characters; the tradition in films like this one is to identify with the kids to the point where adults become demons. Lin seems to like all his characters and he likes to wear his heart on his sleeve too. That is, in the sense that he really believes in cinema and the integrity of his characters. Here fantasy is synonymous with the liberating power of the movies. And for me, the film’s best bit sums up this sensibility best. It’s when Mei’s Mum (a great Rene Liu) gets nostalgic about her own teen years. The setting is a café. Overwhelmed with a sense of good spirits (which is slightly manic), Liu persuades Mei to join her in a little dance number. She counts out the steps and shows Mei her moves, while the other bewildered patrons look on. The moment starts off awkward but it has an irresistible charm. Mei asks her mum where she learnt the dance. “In a movie,” she says. And any film fan will recognise that dance and that setting: it’s from Godard’s Band of Outsiders.
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