“Before letting go, hold on, as tight as you can.”
Starry Starry Night is an adaptation of the popular Taiwanese illustrated book of the same name by Jimmy Liao, and a rare Taiwan-China co production. Since I’ve never read the book, I can’t comment on how faithful it is and how it compares, but as a standalone film, Starry Starry Night is truly something special. Written and directed by Tom Lin, Starry Starry Night may not be perfect, but it strives for subtlety and realism, despite having many elements of fantasy in the mix. I also can’t stress enough how beautiful the film is to look at, and at the center of it all, there’s a sweet yet mature story about childhood and young love, working in unison to create a visually amazing coming-of-age film.
Mei (Xu Jiao), 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. One day, Mei meets new student Jay (Lin Hui-min), who seems more detached from the world than she is. Together they try to face their problems, but things only get 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.
From what I’ve been told, Liao’s book was aimed mainly towards children, and thus it never explored its characters and themes with depth. It’s always tricky adapting picture books as they’re usually quite short. Praise must go to Lin for being able to craft a screenplay with a lot of depth and heart. Comparisons between Starry Starry Night and Moonrise Kingdom are assured as both films deal with young love and childhood themes, along with similar storylines. I was one of the few movie-goers who thought Moonrise Kingdom was overrated. One of the main reasons I couldn’t connect with the latter film was that the lead characters never felt like real children – it was hard to relate to them. Luckily, Starry Starry Night doesn’t fall under this problem. Mei and Jay are easy to relate to, and their individual storylines are beautifully written – Mei has to deal with the death of her grandfather (which is established in a tear-jerking scene), and her parents are getting divorced, while Jay has had a traumatizing experience in the past.
Starry Starry Night aims for subtlety, which is something a lot of these kind of films don’t do. It never breaks the rule of film – “Show, not tell.” Under Lin’s skilled direction, the film explores themes of heartbreak and happiness with depth, but it never truly shoves it into the audiences’ face. That being said, there are a few monologues that work just as well, such as the final narration Mei makes towards the end of the film. Lin carefully structures this film from a child’s point of view, making Starry Starry Night a film that’s so easy to connect with, regardless of age and culture. Although some of the elements of the story are somewhat conventional, you’d have to be a complete cynic to feel the film tugging at the heartstrings.
There are so many things I love about Starry Starry Night, but the one thing that keeps me from deeming it a masterpiece is this – the ending. Without spoiling too much, I can tell you this. It ends on an ambiguous note, something like Inception. In some ways, it works well. It’s not a particularly bad ending, but I can see it not satisfying some audiences. I absolutely hated the way this film ended, and the all the scenes building up to it were superb. Did the film need a vague ending? In my opinion, no, it didn’t.
On a more positive note, the performances were top notch. Xu Jiao, who made her breakout performance playing the little boy in Stephen Chow’s CJ7, is fantastic as Mei. Xu essentially has to carry a lot of the film, as Lin’s screenplay actually focuses on her storyline the most, and she’s definitely able to. She’s cute, charming, and convincing in the role. As Jay, Lin Hui-min makes his impressive debut performance. While he isn’t perfect (there are moments of awkwardness), he has several moments to truly shine. Xu and Lin share a good amount of chemistry, resulting in a lovely and convincing friendship – the audience roots for them. In the supporting cast, René Liu and Harlem Yu are terrific as Mei’s parents, and Kenneth Tsang delivers are moving performance as her grandfather. There’s also a small cameo appearance by Gwei Lun-Mei.
On a technical aspect, Starry Starry Night is a masterpiece. Visually, it’s simply amazing. Cinematographer Jake Pollock (who shot one of my favourite Chinese films Wu Xia) is shaping up to being one of my favourite cinematographers working in China these days – his camerawork and lighting is out of this world. Every frame is ridiculously beautiful to look at. Another element of the film I haven’t really touched on is the imagination of Mei and Jay. This is where the visual effects are used in a very creative way. The VFX artists have done a splendid job of using this technology to capture the imagination of children, and uses it in a somewhat adorable way. This is where the fantasy genre finds its way into Starry Starry Night, and while it may not effect a lot of the story, it definitely adds a cute little charm to the film. Also worth mentioning is the gentle score by World’s End Girlfriend (yes, this is the stage name of the composer). Without the score, the film wouldn’t have been quite as moving – it’s a superb mix of charming mischievous tunes, adding to the depiction of childhood, and touching pieces that truly tug at the heartstrings. Art Director Pei-Ling Tsai must also be given praise – the sets and props all look fabulous.
Starry Starry Night was shot on a budget of $7 Million, but only grossed around $400 thousand. It’s such a shame that it never got noticed outside of Taiwan – it’s a gorgeous little film. There are so many themes and messages I could go on about, but then I’d be spoiling half of the movie for you. It’s not perfect, but it comes pretty close to being a masterpiece. It’s cute, it’s beautifully to look at, and it will no doubt move you to tears. Although it’s a family film, it has a true sense of maturity running through it. There’s a haunting quality about Starry Starry Night that will stay with you long after the film has finished – it really reminds you of your own childhood, and thus, it’s a film I instantly connected with.