|A simple romance about a happy-go-lucky delivery boy who pursues a young deaf girl, director Cheng Fen-Fen's Hear Me is pleasant and well performed, and understandably became a hit in its native territory of Taiwan. Cheng's previous two features ranged from intriguing (Keeping Watch) to alarming (Finding Her), and Hear Me shares some of their flaws. For the most part, however, the film is an improvement if not an outright accomplishment by the promising director. The cynical need not apply, but teens and even not-so-young adults should warm to this enjoyable little movie.
Taiwanese youth Tian Kuo (Eddie Peng of Exit No. 6 and All About Women) is a sloppy but lovable delivery boy who works in a Hong Kong-style restaurant for his nagging parents (Lin Mei-Shiu and Luo Be-An). For reasons initially unknown, Tian Kuo knows sign language, which helps him at the local pool where he sells lunchboxes to hard-of-hearing athletes training for competition. It's there that the deaf Yang Yang (Ivy Chen) catches Tian Kuo's eye. Yang Yang is perpetually dropping by the pool to cheer on elder sister Xiao Peng (Chen Yan-Xi), who trains at the pool and also possesses a hearing disability.
Xiao Peng dreams of competing in the Deaflympics, and her chances are high, as she's one of the most talented swimmers on the team. Yang Yang helps her by doing everything that's humanly possible to make her elder sister's dream come true. She works multiple jobs to make ends meet, including performing some bohemian street theater, leaving little time for anything resembling a personal life. All the while, she's positive and kind, filial and upbeat, and when she smiles her eyes widen to anime heroine-like levels. Yang Yang is obviously one super sweetheart, so it's no wonder that Tian Kuo is smitten. The big question: how does he win her heart?
Hear Me is largely non-verbal, its dialogue taking place mostly via sign language. The silent communication stretches the film's conversations to overlong extremes, but it also allows the actors a wonderful expressiveness, as they use body language as often as hand signs to convey their thoughts. Ivy Chen and Eddie Peng make a very watchable pair, their expressive eyes and exaggerated gestures making perfect sense for the film's situations. Peng overdoes the mugging on occasion, and in those moments the film swings perilously close sitcom territory. However, Peng is a charming and able enough performer to sell his character's over-the-top behavior. Besides, Tian Kuo is decent and righteous, and his unconditional love for Yang Yang makes him easy to root for.
It helps that Yang Yang is also genuinely kind, loyal and giving – and to such a degree that it starts to beggar belief. Such an unbelievably good character usually screams screenwriter fantasy, but the Cheng Fen-Fen and especially the adorable Ivy Chen convince of Yang Yang's innate decency, strong character, and even her purity. The character does have minor faults, but they seem to be human ones, and the push and pull between Yang Yang and Tian Kuo ultimately proves remarkably affecting. These are two very likable and decent characters and even when things get contrived, the gap between screen and audience has closed so much that the contrivances and occasional pandering moments are easy to forgive.
Also engaging are Tian Kuo's parents, who are portrayed as nagging but also genuinely loving. Cheng's focus on lower-class, unprivileged protagonists is noteworthy, as her characters' positive work ethic and simple, earnest values makes them easily identifiable. These characters work small, even menial jobs simply to keep their daily lives going - and they seem happy to do so. Hear Me portrays these ground-level Taiwanese in a very warm manner, such that getting to know them feels quite comfortable. Technically, the film echoes that warmth; art direction and cinematography are decidedly realistic, and capture Taiwan's urban charm exceptionally. Hear Me may not be a glossy youth romance, but it still manages an attractive glow.
Cheng Fen-Fen's tendency for overwriting does show up, however. Like in Finding Her and Keeping Watch, Hear Me has overused themes and obvious messages, and at a certain point they're pushed so forcefully that audience exasperation is easy. The film sags a bit when it focuses on the relationship between the two sisters, with their big sign language heart-to-heart conversation proving as labored as it is inherently affecting. The fact that they never verbalize their canned platitudes does help somewhat, but in the end obvious screenwriting is still obvious screenwriting - even when it's conveyed via sign language.
Also, the film takes far too long for end, and chooses to go with an extended coda spotlighting one of the film's major causes: the Deaflympics. That's yet another obvious message, but calling out Hear Me for catering to such a worthy cause feels inherently wrong - and anyway, it comes at the end of a largely quality film. The film's romance is ultimately satisfying enough to compensate for any nagging doubts, with all of Cheng Fen-Fen's elements - her story, actors, and characters - complementing each other exceptionally. Hear Me doesn't have the super-glossy romance or epic story of last year's beloved Taiwanese megahit Cape No. 7, but its charming rough edges, endearing characters and focus on simple values make it perhaps more of an accomplishment. (Kozo, 2009)