Coming-of-age films have become one of the most popular genres in Taiwan commercial cinema. Films like Winds of September, Blue Gate Crossing and even Monga offer different spins on the trials and tribulations of being a teenager in Taiwan. Now, popular novelist Giddens brings his own story to the big screen with You Are the Apple of My Eye, based on his pseudo-autobiographical novel. All the typical coming-of-age film elements are here: high school cliques, schoolyard politics, sexual curiosity and even some studying.
When Giddens calls You Are the Apple of My Eye an autobiography, he isn't kidding; not only did he name the hero after himself, he even shot a good portion of the film at his own high school. However, the film's basic idea is something that's universal: every high school clique has one girl that all the guys want to date. For Ko Ching-Teng (first-time actor Ko Chen-Tung, no relation) and his friends Boner (Yan Sheng-Yu), A-Ho (Steven Hao), Groin (Tsai Cheng-Hsien) and Tsao (Lollipop F member Owodog), that girl is Shen Chia-Yi (Michelle Chen, Hear Me), the prettiest bookworm in the class.
After Ching-Teng and his friend gets into trouble for masturbating in class (just the first of the film's many masturbation jokes), Chia-Yi is asked by their teacher to keep an eye on Ching-Teng. Reluctantly taking up the job, Chia-Yi figures the first step to get her new ward back on track is to make him study. Naturally, the bickering couple eventually become good friends, even as all of Ching-Teng's friends continue to use wacky ways to pursue her.
The boys' wacky ways are simply variations of things you've seen before in countless high school comedies. Giddens has unintentionally proven that high school life in most civilized countries must be similar, as the first half of You Are the Apple of My Eye is standard teen comedy stuff, from overused character archetypes (the Fat Kid, the Womanizer, the Joker, etc.) to a surprisingly high amount of sexual humor that's comparable to that in American teen sex comedies.
This universality means that audiences that still remember their high school days will immediately relate to the settings, the juvenile humor and the familiar characters. Giddens also caters to his home audience with plenty of Taiwan pop culture references, from having popular Taiwan blogger Wan Wan play herself (as Chia-Yi's fictional best friend) to even an obscure Jay Chou in-joke.
Giddens does have something up his sleeve for non-Taiwanphiles and those looking for a little more in You Are the Apple of My Eye; around the halfway point, the film leaves its high school setting behind, revealing at its core a story about the unspoken love between Chia-Yi and Ching-Teng. The long-unrequited romance is not a fresh genre (especially in Asian films), but Giddens' personal connection likely helped him craft a particularly poignant love story, ultimately making the film more accomplished as a romance than a high school comedy.
Though the story is told entirely from Ching-Teng/Giddens' point of the view, the writer-director doesn't shy away from his hero's flaws nor how those flaws affect his relationship with Chia-Yi. However, at times Giddens also plays up the importance of his own story a bit too much, emphasizing its connection to his real life throughout and wrapping up the film with a five-minute montage that recaps the entire film just to hammer home how touching it's all supposed to be.
The final moments do carry an emotional impact because of how well Giddens lays out the path leading up to them, but his talented cast should also be credited. Ko Chen-Tung is a likable male lead (the fact that he bares all will add some bonus points for some viewers, too), as are the supporting cast. However, it's Michelle Chen that does the heavy lifting as Chia-Yi, who has to display a wider range of emotions than any other character in the film. Despite being eight years older than her co-star, Chen is totally believable as the object of Ching-Teng's affection thanks to her youthful spunk. While Giddens is the promotional focus of the film in Taiwan, audiences will come out remembering Michelle Chen.
The commercial success of You Are the Apple of My Eye is a synergy of many things: Giddens' popularity, the strong cast, a poignant romance and possibly even the fact that it's based on a true story. Neither the form nor the content of the film is particularly original, but it's made by someone who knows how to please his audience without giving up his personal touch. You are the Apple of My Eye is pop cinema at its finest.
(Kevin Ma, reviewed at the Hong Kong Summer International Film Festival, 2011)