This is Love
A made in China romantic comedy couldn't hurt, could it? I was surprised by the quality of director Han Yan's First Time, starring Taiwan's Mark Chao and Hong Kong's Angelababy in leading roles, and was pretty much blown away at how sophisticated the entire package was from plot to production values. Then the key ingredient was finally laid out for me - that this is a remake of a 2003 Korean Film ...ing. And that made perfect sense.
It's not that I'm knocking down made in China productions, but somehow I feel that the level of story telling just isn't all that yet, and what's worse is its censorship code having to meddle in the way stories have to be developed, told, and end in some kind of morally acceptable manner. The result is films that have to slant a certain manner, sapping away at innovation and creativity, which tells when you view the film. But it's never going to be stagnant and will improve over time just as audience's taste develop, and hopefully change for the better, and with that, more solid tales will come. And First Time shows that with the right, solid material, cinematic wonders can be made.
Of course the structure of this love story isn't new, dealing with star crossed lovers from a manner that comes packaged with twists and turns when you least expect, wondering who's playing who, and who had pre-requisite knowledge about where the other half was coming from. Essentially First Time tells the love story between Song Shiqiao (Angelababy), a girl who suffers from a neuromuscular disease, and Gong Ning (Mark Chao), a former classmate whom she had a liking for. Like all lovebirds, they find strength in each other's company and affection, and inspire each other to go beyond their limits, which in this case, is Shiqiao's pursuit of ballet, which her mom Zheng Qing (Jiang Shan) is adamantly against given her illness.
To say anything more would be to ruin the surprises that come as soon as a third into the story, and more in its final act, where saccharine sweet acts of encouragement, enlightenment, forgiveness all get rolled into one, that sledgehammers thick emotions down your throat where you'll find it hard not to tear or two. Besides the main narrative thread, there are many smaller subplots involving the theme of romance and family relationships, such as that of the older generation in the love story between Gong Ning's parents which got told in an indirect manner involving a traffic junction (which turned out more moving), and the obvious love and care a parent like Zheng Qing in her looking out for the best for her daughter.
Mark Chao and Angelababy make a cute on screen couple, and the story provides ample time for them to be together, engaging in various courtship rituals. Mark Chao went one more step to ensure he lend his real singing vocals to the many songs in the film since he's fronting a rock band, and didn't overplay his Romeo bit, save for his character coming off as a cad in the early stages of the relationship which will be explained in due course. Angelababy proved to be more than just another pretty face amongst her peers, and while her role here didn't exactly provide that acting chop challenge, she does enough to make her Shiqiao character extremely likable, with Han Yan ensuring her thoughts get developed through the use of animation in the film.
It was as long as since Crying Out Love, in the Center of the World, that a cassette tape was used as a narrative plot device, now put into a similar, yet different use here where sweet nothings get exchanged in the medium, and you can trust the Koreans to come up with a rationale why only a single side gets utilized. All in all it's a solid romantic tale that stood the test of almost a decade's worth of time, with charismatic leads leading the charge in making this stand out amongst the crowd. Now my interest has been piqued to want to watch the original version. Recommended!