Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Starry Starry Night: A Coming of Age Story for All Ages

It is tough being the kid with an artistic temperament in school.  Having trouble at home is a double whammy for both Mei and Jay.  At least they have each other’s support in Tom Shu-yu Lin’s Starry Starry Night (trailer here), an exquisitely sensitive portrait of young love that opens this Friday in New York following its 2012 NYAFF screening this afternoon.

Jay is a shy kid with a remarkable talent for creating art.  He has a hard time making friends, because he and his mom must constantly move to new addresses.  Mei has many friends, but is not particularly close to any of them.  Her mother has taught to appreciate fine art through the jigsaw puzzles they use to put together as a family.  Unfortunately, he parents are now too busy fighting to spend quality time with her.  She feels her closest connection to her aging grandfather, who lives in a Kinkadean cabin in the woods, until she meets Jay.

At first it is a case of fascination for Mei, but as she and Jay share their mutual interests, an innocent friendship blossoms into innocent love.  Grieving her grandfather and upset by the announcement of her parents’ impending divorce, she leads Jay on a journey to the late woodworker’s cottage nestled deep in the mountains.

In a nutshell, Starry could be considered the Taiwanese Moonrise Kingdom, except its young protagonists are far more endearing and their troubles are considerably more real.  The closing credits even feature illustrations from Jimmy Liao’s picture book, upon which the film is based.  Yet despite the more liberal use of CGI, bringing to life origami animals animated by the duo’s purity of spirit, Starry is much more grounded.  Indeed, the emotional stakes involved in growing up and caring for others are quite real throughout Lin’s sympathetic screenplay.

Young Josie Xu carries a disproportionate share of the film’s dramatic load, but she is fantastic as Mei.  Charming and vulnerable as circumstance demand, it is a remarkably assured screen performance.  While his character is more reticent and reserved, Eric Lin Hui Ming is also quite compelling in Jay’s big revelatory scenes.  Starry also boasts a special too-significant-to-be-a-cameo appearance by Kwai Lun Mei in an epilogue completely one-upping anything Nicholas Sparks ever wrote.

True, Starry is not afraid of a little sentiment, but it earns its pay-off, every step of the way.  Firmly but elegantly helmed by Lin, the film treats its young characters and their dilemmas with refreshing respect.  Its lush animated backdrops are truly striking, but the film never really engages in magical realism, per se.  It is merely amplifying the feelings of its charismatic leads.  Nonetheless, it is quite visually dynamic (with particular credit due to Penny Tsai Pei-ling’s design team), capturing the essence of Liao’s book.  Enormously satisfying and hugely commercial, it is precisely the sort of international film that can break into the mainstream.  Highly recommended for general audiences, Starry Starry Night opens this Friday (7/6) in New York at the AMC Empire and in Seattle at the AMC Pacific Place, courtesy of China Lion Entertainment.