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Our Times
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by Jay Seaver

"Another first love."
3 stars

So, here's a weird coincidence - two Mandarin-language movies reaching American cinemas a mere two days apart, both nostalgic romances that, at different points, involve the young characters needing to meet up at McDonald's. They're from different countries (China and Taiwan) with very different focuses, and while I like this one a bit more, it seems like this part of the world is pumping out a lot of movies like this, and this one isn't one of the best.

This time, we're looking back on the late 1990s, when Lin Truly (Vivian Sung Yun-hua) was a high-school student with a celebrity crush on Andy Lau and a more close-at-hand eye on star basketball player Ouyang Extraordinary (Dino Lee Yu-hsi), though boys seldom seems to notice Truly with the beautiful Tao Minmin (Dewi Chien Ting-yui) living next door. That's why when Truly gets a chain letter promising misery if it's not passed on, she sends a copy to Minmin, one to a sadistic teacher, and one to Hsu Taiyu (Darren Wang Da-lu), the school's resident bad boy. When he discovers it, he proceeds to torment Truly, but he's got a crush on Minmin and discovering that Ouyang and Minmin are together transforms Truly and Taiyu to initially-reluctant allies.

This is, as is often par for the course, bookended by present-day bits with Joe Chen Qiao-en as the adult Truly, and it's one of the more peculiar uses of this over-used technique: After a fantasy sequence that isn't particularly well-delimited, it shows Truly as frustrated, self-doubting, and unrespected, and while she was certainly that way as a teenager, the 1990s material mostly has her on a trajectory that would seem to indicate her ending above that, which means that we spend much of the film waiting to see what's going to derail the happy ending, and that's not a whole lot of fun. It's a weird fit in other ways - neither the situation that inspires the flashback or her reaction afterwards really fits the story it tells, and the final present-day bits are a rickety story that seems primarily held together by Chen being extremely likable as the older Truly and Andy Lau being a really good sport.

The bulk of the movie takes place in 1997 or so, and I suspect that in a lot of cases those with much better knowledge of Taiwanese pop culture both then and now than I will enjoy it more. I smiled when MC Hammer came on the soundtrack and had to be reminded that Lau is known as much as a singer as an actor in the Chinas, but that is pretty much my limit, while the crowd around me swooned at many of the young actors (some, like Dino Lee, also singers with a number of songs on the soundtrack) and laughed at music cues. The film isn't dependent on reference recognition, but I'll bet that would give it a boost.

And it could use one; even taking the present-day bookends out of this 134-minute movie, it's still fairly long for what is a fairly light movie, and there are quite a few bits that drag on and other times when the story seems to run in circles, with the characters either seeming to revert or fall far behind the audience in terms of recognizing who likes whom. The script by Sabrina Tseng Yung-ting winds up doing flashback fill-ins that undercut the previous comedy. It's not necessary to take the most direct route, but this film takes a lot of detours and reversals that don't add much.

On the other hand, when Our Times goes for comedy, it is usually very funny. Truly and Taiyu are great, exaggerated versions of certain character types, with the latter in particular providing a deranged jolt of entry when he's introduced that keeps things moving for a long time, especially since Darren Wang dives into this guy being a maniac, with the script seeming to place him in a far less realistic high-school movie than the one everybody else is in. It makes for an occasionally mean-spirited pairing with Vivian Sung, who spends much of the movie's first half providing slapstick as she stumbles through scenes where Truly is tormented by Taiyu, faced with a family far more invested in her dim-bulb brother, and frequently the victim of her own over-enthusiasm. She almost always finds the sweet spot where Truly isn't overly manic or pathetic, and still manages to retain a fair amount of not-quite-cool when she gets the inevitable makeover. Teen idol Dino Lee is often surprisingly funny as Ouyang - he's got a way of opening his eyes super-wide and seeming to be surprisingly riveted by Truly that somehow seems fresh each time - and it seems like a shame that Dewi Chien isn't given a stronger personality to play as Minmin; she's pretty but never memorable.

I can't say I'm a big fan of "Our Times", and not just because seemingly every other Taiwanese movie that crosses the Pacific is a nostalgic look back at high school; it's a real mess. Still, I find myself fairly willing to defer to the audience a bit - there were a lot of things that the folks around me who are much closer to the film's target audiences than a middle-aged white guy went nuts for, and not having the pepper frame of reference, it's hard for me to say they're wrong, even if I do think they could have had an even better movie.

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originally posted: 11/23/15 15:26:30
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Directed by
  Frankie Chen

Written by
  Yung-Ting Tseng

  Vivian Sung
  Darren Wang
  Dino Lee
  Dewi Chien
  Andy Lau
  Joe Chen

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