Starry Starry Night

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/24/12 02:03:46

"Paints a picture as lovely as its title."
5 stars (Awesome)

SCREENED AT THE 2012 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Stick around through the end credits of "Starry Starry Night", which appear to contain images from Jimmy Liao's original illustrated book. It's not just that they're beautiful (they are) or that they imply that this pretty stunning film was based on a work originally for young readers (it is), but that writer/director Tom Shu-yu Lin is willing to show the audience where he was faithful and where he changed things; a confidence you don't always see, but one which is warranted.

Xiao Mei (Xu Jiao) is in seventh grade, her parents' marriage is falling apart, and it seems obvious enough to her that she plans to run away to her grandfather's cabin in the woods, although she doesn't go through with it. That's maybe a good thing, as she soon discovers she has a new neighbor and classmate, Jay Chou (Lin Hui-ming), and even though her curiosity about what's in his sketchbook gets him in trouble, they soon form a tight bond that Mei is going to need.

Where to start? Well, how about with the kids, because they're wonderful to watch. While Xu Xiao could be considered a veteran child actress by now - western audiences likely remember her as Stephen Chow's son in CJ7 - Lin Hui-ming is a newcomer, but both seem quite natural throughout the movie. What's perhaps most impressive is that kids in a movie like this usually either pick one expression and stick with it or bounce awkwardly between two different moods; Xu and Lin both handle the pressures as well as the utter glee of finding each other very nicely, making them hurt and vulnerable but never quite about to collapse.

And then there's the visuals that Tom Lin tosses out, from the opening scene where time stops except for an impossible snowfall inside the train station to when the painting of the title seems to come alive in surprising, beautiful ways, to many other shots in between. It's not just the whimsical use of visual effects, though - Lin and cinematographer Jake Pollock shoot every frame wonderfully, whether it's Jay really seeing the stars for the first time (you don't get true dark in Taipei City), a bit of just-right framing when Jay loses his temper or something, or the slow-motion havoc Mei wreaks as she frantically searches her toybox for a missing puzzle piece.

There's a strong end-of-childhood vibe to that scene, and there's no denying that Lin hits some metaphors pretty hard - that missing piece, for instance, pulls a lot of weight as a hole in the center of Mei's life, with jigsaw puzzles recurring several times during the movie. A common motif early on establishes Jay and Mei as two of a kind (its second appearance being one that made me smile and think I really liked this kid), and other bits emphasize the sheer joy the pair get out of creation. It's never crude or blunt, but this is a movie for kids who might not be used to looking for this sort of thing in their entertainment. The smart kids and adults will get it.

(In terms of age-appropriateness, Starry Starry Night is mostly the equivalent of a PG-rated movie for kids nine and up, but Jay's portfolio does contain a nude illustration that, while handled well in-story, probably made bypassing the MPAA for its US release a good idea.)

As much as the focus is properly on the kids, the adults acquit themselves well, too, with Rene Liu and Harlem Yu never making their divorcing parents into bad people and Kenneth Tsang contributing a warm performance as Mei's beloved grandfather. Kwai Lunmei is particularly nice in the epilogue - one that almost seems to contradict some of the closing narration, but the film has earned it by then.

It's an impressive film, often very funny without undercutting what Mei and company are going through or making the imagery overdone. It's got the sort of respect for its young characters that translates into a movie that impresses adults as well, and hopefully will find an audience around the world.

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