Starry Starry Night is the third of artist Jimmy Liaoís works to get the big-screen treatment, and the third time may be the charm. Not that the previous two film adaptations, Sound of Colors and Turn Left, Turn Right are bad movies; both are likable and entertaining, but each used overly-manufactured sitcom devices to flesh out Liaoís picture books into full-length features. The films had felt emotion but also annoying details or a sometimes ill-fitting irony. Starry Starry Night takes Liao seriously, using fantasy and imagination to approach the darker corners of his work, ultimately showing adolescence as painful and also precious. Director Tom Lin (Winds of September Ė The Taiwan Chapter) does add his own ideas, but they seem to complement and not detract from the sincerity that so characterizes Liao's work.
CJ7's Xu Jiao (now calling herself "Josie Xu") stars as May, the only daughter in a family thatís slowly splintering. Her parents (Rene Liu and Harlem Yu) are obviously not getting along like they used to, their dinners awkward and their shared company nearly nonexistent. As her parents show signs of a permanent split, May becomes interested in and finally befriends new student Jay (Eric Lin Hui-Min), a sullen and troubled loner whose silence hides domestic trauma involving his emotionally-wounded mother (Janel Tsai) and mysteriously missing dad. Together, the kids commiserate, becoming closer through creativity, fantasy and finally an impromptu trip into the woods, where Mayís grandfather (Kenneth Tsang) keeps a remote cabin. A crisis sends the kids on their trip, but solace and satisfaction canít be found by running away. Growing up teaches you that.
Starry Starry Night does nothing particularly new, recycling common tropes about adolescence, coming of age and personal growth. However, in this age of force-fed consumerism, there are few things weíve not seen nor heard before. The trick, then, is all in the telling Ė and Tom Lin and Jimmy Liao do a fine job there. Liaoís subjects are commonplace but he uses his artwork to capture his characters' innocence and melancholy. Lin doesnít have Liaoís expressive use of color and ink to enchant the audience, but heís got fine art direction, terrific cinematography and some smart use of CGI. The visual effects bring to life fantastic imaginary objects like paper creatures or wooden animals, but they arenít the spectacle. The point here isn't the visual effects, but their representation of the charactersí innocence and emotional connection. In lieu of action or dialogue, this imagery-as-character works wonders.
Also effective is the film's look and style. Colors are primary and bright, but with sharp shadows giving detail and edge. Pacing is quite leisurely, perhaps more than necessary, with acute emotion usually reflected with slow motion theatrics. The film is stronger when it employs quiet shifts in mood, like a dance sequence between Rene Liu and Xu Jiao that veers from minor elation into sudden sadness. As the parents, Rene Liu and Harlem Yu are fine; neither is completely sketched, but the portrayals make sense from May's limited and decidedly affected point of view. Newcomer Eric Lin is a bit stiff and uncomfortable as Jay. Lin is fine as a beautiful, idealized bad boy, but heís too soft to handle the character's darker emotions. At the film's heart is Xu Jiao, who makes a solid transition from child to adolescent actor. Her plain yet pretty features make her an easy actress to identify with; Mayís emotions, while typical of a fictional introspective youth, are easier to buy when the actor carrying them is so genuine-seeming and unpretentious.
Starry Starry Night captures youth effectively but not realistically, filtering loneliness, realization and growth through a fantastic and also somber lens. Tom Lin respects the mood and intent of Jimmy Liaoís work, and if any flaw exists in this adaptation it may be due to the translation between mediums and not the work itself. Lin makes small, even cloying additions, like the use of a missing piece from a puzzle of Vincent van Gogh's famous painting Starry Night, which May searches for frantically and perhaps to no avail. The metaphor there is obvious, but it acts as an effective image for a pop-art coming-of-age fantasy, and certainly works better than another cloying moment, an all-encompassing voiceover from May that wraps up everything too neatly. In the context of Tom Linís super-sincere adaptation of Jimmy Liaoís work, these devices are fine ones, as is a final cameo from Taiwan starlet Guey Lun-Mei as a pitch-perfect older version of May. Starry Starry Night attempts cinema magic in its portrayal of moody youth, and the spell it casts is not without flaw. And yet itís also hard to resist. (Kozo, reviewed at the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival, 2011)