Our Times (Wo De Shaonu Shidai)
Taiwan (2015) Dir. Frankie Chen
Growing up is so hard to do but is life better when we‘re adults? And does looking back on the past explain where we are today? In her directorial debut, noted Taiwanese TV producer Frankie Chen ponders this notion through a trip down memory lane for a hard working but put upon modern woman.
The lady in question is Truly Lin (Joe Chen), an earnest, cheery office worker respected by her colleagues and seniors alike and held up as a model employer to the younger staff. However, the truth is she too nice to say no, and her juniors mock her behind her back. This causes Truly to wonder where her life went wrong.
Looking back at the early 1990’s, teenage Truly (Vivian Sung) is a nerdy girl in love with handsome classmate Ouyang (Dino Lee), who in turn is smitten with school beauty Minmin (Dewi Chien). Also fixated on Minmin is resident bully Hsu Taiyu (Darren Wang), who Truly angers by sending him a cursed chain letter. Realising they have a mutual interest, Truly and Taiyu team up to separate Minmin and Ouyang.
If you’ve seen one teen romantic drama then you’ve seen them all, making it difficult to add something fresh to what is a fully established and almost unbreakable formula. Chen and her screenwriter Sabrina Tseng give it a good go in the early going but the gravitational pull of the genre’s conventions proves too strong and what is initially a quirky comedy becomes generic drama.
However writing this film off because of a paucity of fresh ideas is cutting one’s nose off to spite your face – thanks to a wonderfully spirited and charismatic lead performance and genuine laugh out loud comedy moments, there is a lot here to make this a enjoyable enough distraction for a cold or rainy afternoon.
The two and ¼-hour run time might not be fully justified content wise but it is easy to caught get up in the film’s amiable energy and generally upbeat disposition. This is largely because of the character of Truly has a bubbly infectious charm about her, both as an adult and a teen.
In her adult life Truly has a small team working under her and a demanding boss who dumps everything on them with little to no reward but she accepts it all with a smile on her face. Looking back at her teen years and it seems nothing has changed, largely due to truly being a quirky girl with scruffy hair and glasses and a huge fantasy crush on Hong Kong mega star Andy Lau.
She has her two friends who are equally giddy and outcast, all happy in their little world, yet it is for straight A student Ouyang that Truly secretly holds an additional candle. Truly’s involvement with delinquent Taiyu comes about in an unusual way – she receives a chain letter than warns of tragedy if it is ignored, so she five copies out, one being to the troublesome Taiyu.
Not long after Taiyu is hit by a car and injured. Learning it was Truly who vexed him with the chain letter Taiyu forces her to be his lackey, doing his homework, buying food etc. After overhearing a conversation between Ouyang and Minmin Truly becomes so upset she jumps into the school pool, only to be rescued by Taiyu. From here they become a team to split up Ouyang and Minmin but a romance predictably blossoms instead.
While the way this unfolds doesn’t stray too much from the manual either, it is still able to make good on the comedy front before things get too slushy. Thankfully they don’t rush straight into the overnight realisation that they might be in love but the changing point is a revelation about Taiyu’s past which Truly uses to get Taiyu to clean up his act.
Unfortunately a transformation in Taiyu’s demeanour and personality does occur almost on a turn of a heel, although his bad boy credentials aren’t totally buried as the arrival of a strict new school director serves to remind us. Truly helps Taiyu study again but when he passes his exam, the school director accuses him of cheating, bringing out Taiyu’s confrontational side again.
Meanwhile Truly undergoes a makeover once Taiyu warms to her, which again brings with it a personality change for our once bubbly protagonists. Much like Alison in The Breakfast Club, Truly’s individuality is now gone and she is just another cute bland face in a crowd of cute bland faces; for this writer she was much more attractive and adorable with the scruffy hair, glasses and ditzy behaviour.
If this sounds like every Hollywood teen film from the last 30 years then perhaps Chen was deliberately going for the international market, as the middle section feels more American in vibe than Taiwanese. The most blatant illustration of this comes during the end of year award ceremony featuring a Spartacus like show of rebellious solidarity that is absolutely straight out of the John Hughes playbook.
After a number of incidents and developments following this we return to the present day and adult Truly appears to have learned something from this detailed reminiscence and puts it into immediate effect. Had the film’s main body been judiciously trimmed this denouement wouldn’t feel like a protracted coda that outstays its welcome.
Even though this film is ripe for picking part the minutiae of its hackneyed material it is very well done, keeping its head above water where others would have sunk. As suggested earlier this is down to Vivian Sung in just her second film role, carrying the whole load on her slender shoulders. Overflowing with charisma, charm and an appealing presence Sung can handle both comedy and drama too. One to watch for the future.
Our Times makes no attempt to reinvent the wheel but ensures the journey is a comfortable and undemanding one, albeit in need a short cut or two.