My Heart Leaps Up
China, 2016, colour, 1.85:1, 94 mins.
Director: Liu Ziwei 刘紫微.
High-school first-crush story has a fresh feel thanks to its different approach and fine lead casting.
Beijing, Sep 1997. Liu Weiwei (Sun Yihan) begins her second year of senior high at 122nd High School. Mildly rebellious, and interested only in design, she reads fashion magazines in class and is preparing an album of collages. Liu Weiwei has become fascinated by one of the teachers, handsome Zou Ye (Song Ning) who teaches art in junior high. While looking round his office for a large stapler to bind her album, she’s surprised when he enters and runs off without saying anything. A new biology teacher, Ye Nan (Zhou Chuchu), whom all the boys fancy, thinks she is talented and encourages her to stand as class representative instead of one of her friends, cocky Wang Yuye (Liu Rui). Zou Ye ends up helping her bind her album and encourages her in her art interest, even though, as she discovers, he is suffering from a lack of inspiration in his own painting. One day her best friend, Yang Xiaowan (Chi Yun), tells her she secretly fancies Wang Yuye; but Liu Weiwei won’t reveal whom she secretly likes. One weekend Liu Weiwei visits Zou Ye at the school and spends the afternoon posing for her portrait; afterwards, she suggests he buys her dinner but when she takes his arm he begs off. Despite some awkardness when they next cross paths at school, Liu Weiwei can’t get Zou Ye out of her mind, and starts to stalk him on the premises, unaware of a decision he’s taken.
A serendipitous piece of lead casting in young newcomer Sun Yihan 孙伊涵, plus a smooth technical package that works as one, more than compensates for the thin screenplay in My Heart Leaps Up 我心雀跃, a beguiling first feature by film-maker Liu Ziwei 刘紫微, 34. Though the subject – a high-school girl’s first crush – is hardly fresh, her treatment of it is, and she’s wisely surrounded herself with a seasoned team behind the camera, notably ace d.p. Hou Yong 侯咏 (who also takes a producing credit, along with Liu) and editor Yang Hongyu 杨红雨. What marks Heart out from the coming-of-age/high-school pack is the way in which Liu, in an understated way, deals with the sensation of one’s first crush, without any elaborate plot or personal conflicts getting in the way.
Set in Liu’s home city of Beijing in 1997, when she would have been about the same age as her mid-teens protagonist, the film is seemingly autobiographical – or at least encourages the viewer to think so. The girl’s name, Liu Weiwei 刘唯唯, partly evokes the director’s own (despite using a different “wei”), and Liu Ziwei herself plays the girl’s mother. That, however, is only in a couple of scenes, in which she’s barely glimpsed: the home/family life of the protagonist is ignored, with the dramatic focus kept tightly on the school, its pupils and its teachers.
The sense of a tightly circumscribed world is maintained throughout, with the girl’s existence effectively within its gates, its courtyards and its oldstyle buildings. Even there, however, not much emphasis is placed on the academic side of her life, in which she has little interest: Liu Weiwei has a small circle of five classmates, a blooming friendship with a new female teacher, and a crush on a male teacher who teaches art to junior high. Her mistake in confusing his encouragement of her artistic leanings with a sexual interest in her could have lead to a conventional high-school drama of “forbidden love” but Heart, thankfully, doesn’t go that route.
The film’s poetic title (the same in both Chinese and English) refers to the well-known 1802 poem by William Wordsworth – “My heart leaps up when I behold/A rainbow in the sky” – and from the first shot, with Puccini played over a close-up of a curious, exotic bird, the film immediately sets up its metaphysical stall. The varied score, which ranges from chunks of Italian opera to lighter stuff, strangely works in portraying the girl’s shifting moods, though it’s the terrific photography by Hou (light, summery, almost crystalline at times) that anchors the film, with the camera roaming over bodies and things with a teenage curiosity. Smooth editing by Yang maintains a nice easy flow, and unexpected fades and transitions keep things fresh.
The cherry on the cake, however, is the lead casting of Hunan-born newcomer Sun (17 at the time of filming), who brings exactly the right combination of teenage capriciousness and a loose, developing sexuality to the role, without lapsing into sulkiness. Some scenes, such as her sitting in a room with strings of fairy lights, or trying out a new dress at home, have no precise point and just add texture to the part; but with an apparent spontaneity that recalls a young Shu Qi 舒淇, Sun is equally good in those scenes as in others. To be sure, she’s not tested by having to play against any big names: even moderately well-known faces like Zhou Chuchu 周楚楚 (so good as the singer in Ip Man: The Final Fight 叶问 终极一战, 2013) as the new female teacher and the rising Song Ning 宋宁, 35, as the object of her crush – both charismatic in low-key ways – are basically in supporting roles. Among the class friends there’s an easy chemistry, with Chi Yun 池韵, 26, engaging as the lead’s best female friend and Du Shuangyu 杜双宇 ditto as an entrepreneurial male pal.
Presented by Beijing Ivan Film & TV Investment (CN), Beijing Happiness Rainbow Culture & Creative (CN).
Script: Xu Yuan, Liu Ziwei. Photography: Hou Yong. Editing: Yang Hongyu. Music: Liao Jiawei. Art direction: Bai Furui. Costume design: Liu Ziwei, Shao Nianning. Sound: Fu Kang, Fan Donglin, Mei Zhu, Zhang Tao. Executive direction: Xu Yuan.
Cast: Sun Yihan (Liu Weiwei), Song Ning (Zou Ye, art teacher), Zhou Chuchu (Ye Nan, biology teacher), Du Shuangyu (Xu Jing), Liu Rui (Wang Yuye), Chi Yun (Yang Xiaowan), Liu Beiyan (Beiyan), Ren Yunjie (Xiaojie), Xiu Jian (headmaster), Wang Yousheng (caretaker), Zhang Xuan (PE teacher), Liu Ziwei (Liu Weiwei’s mother), Xu Jingnan (policeman), Zhang Xuan, Bi Yongming (street bullies), Bai Furui (rich car driver).
Premiere: Shanghai Film Festival (Asian New Talent Award), 14 Jun 2016.
Release: China, Apr 2017.