When a Wolf Falls in Love with a Sheep
Taiwan, 2012, colour, 2.35:1, 85 mins.
Director: Hou Jiran 侯季然.
Beautifully crafted rom-com set around a Taibei cram school doesn’t put a foot wrong.
Taibei, the present day. Dumped by his dream girl-friend Cai Yiying (Xie Xinying), who just leaves him a note saying “I’m off to cram school”, Dong (Ke Zhendong) goes to pieces. He ends up in Nanyang Street, famous for its cram schools, where he’s offered a job by a copy-shop owner (Cai Zhennan), one of whose customers is cram school Sure Win 必胜. While delivering copies of exam papers there, Dong meets one of its employees, Xiaoyang (Jian Manshu), who was responsible for the school’s nickname, South Sheep Farm 南方小羊牧场. A talented illustrator, she has a habit of drawing cartoon sheep with messages on the exam papers, and is only biding her time at the school until she can find a proper job. Introverted and a bit weird, Xiaoyang also claims she sleepwalks at night. She and Dong start to spend time together, with her dreaming of leaving when 100 days are up and him still thinking about Cai Yiying, whom he’s discovered did briefly study there. Xiaoyang eventually tells him about her ex-boyfriend, Jiang Shuotao (Zhang Shuhao), who dumped her with a paper-plane message and went abroad. After keeping her notes on the exam papers, Dong one day spontaneously writes a “reply”, drawing himself as a wolf. Around them both, in the backstreets, move various colourful characters – the cram-school owner (Nie Yun), Xiaoyang’s entrepreneurial workmate Cui Paopao (Guo Shuyao), the handsome Fried Rice Man (Lu Tingwei), mobile-phone stall owner Auntie Sticky Rice (Wu Bilian) and a priest-turned-noodle stall owner (Lin Qingtai).
Pretty much the only thing off-kilter about When a Wolf Falls in Love with a Sheep 南方小羊牧场 is the cumbersome English title, which makes it sound like a children’s cartoon or a sappy melodrama. Apart from that, this second feature by Taiwan writer-director Hou Jiran 侯季然 is a beautifully paced rom-com wrapped inside a neighbourhood ensemble movie that doesn’t put a foot wrong. A rom-com where not a single kiss is exchanged, where the two protagonists seem to spend their time thinking about everything but the other person, and where the story is only just starting as the film ends, Wolf represents a huge leap in writing and structure from Hou’s feature debut, the abstruse, time-bending romance One Day 有一天 (2009). More than that, it fulfils the promise of his segment in Juliets 茱丽叶 (2010), a perfect demonstration of the short-story form that also showed a natural feel for Taibei’s backstreets.
Clearly inspired by Hou’s own memories of Nanyang Street – an area just south of the city’s main train station that’s known for its cram schools – the movie starts off with protagonist Dong (likeably played by Ke Zhendong 柯震东, the alter ego of director Giddens 九把刀 in hit You Are the Apple of My Eye 那些年，我们一起追的女孩, 2011), being peremptorily dumped by his dream girl (Xie Xinying 谢欣颖, from One Day, in a cameo) with a note stuck to his forehead. After falling to pieces, and searching for her among Nanyang’s cram schools, Dong ends up working in a copy shop there and stumbles across the school where she once was. Meanwhile, he’s met one of its employees, Xiaoyang (“little sheep”), a wannabe illustrator biding her time there and drawing small cartoons of the woolly animal on exam papers.
The quiet Xiaoyang is slightly tomboyish, quite independent minded, and definitely a bit spacey. As she and Dong become pals, sharing their memories of being dumped, they enter into a relationship that neither of them realises is happening: part of the movie’s magic is that, though the audience is more aware of what’s taking place than the protagonists are, it always leaves its development unsure. In a heart-stopping finale, where time itself bends out of shape, Hou deliberately toys with the viewer’s expectations.
As played by Jian Manshu 简嫚书, who had a tiny part in Hou’s episode of the portmanteau 10+10 十加十 (2011) as a young singer in the 1950s, Xiaoyang inhabits a dreamy plane of her own, counting down the 100 days she’s promised herself to spend in her menial job before moving on, and only showing the tiniest clues that she’s interested in Dong. The latter, still obsessed by being dumped, only picks up these clues tangentially, until one day…click.
With no regular plot, the film is one in which tone is all-important – a difficult balancing act for any director, not least in the difficult genre of the rom-com. The screen chemistry between Jian and Ke is tangible without being over-obvious: two lost souls spending time together. But Hou maintains the tempo by making Xiaoyang and Dong’s story part of a larger neighbourhood ensemble: the school’s colourful, bowtie-wearing boss (Nie Yun 聂云), a priest-cum-noodle stand owner (beautifully played by Lin Qingtai 林庆台, the aboriginal actor who debuted as the lead in Warriors of the Rainbow 赛德克•巴莱, 2011), Dong’s wacky boss (character veteran Cai Zhennan 蔡振南), a sticky-rice seller (Wu Bilian 吴碧莲) who’s lost her dog, and Xiaoyang’s entrepreneurial, kooky workmate Paopao (Guo Shuyao 郭书瑶). Neighbourhood films are a staple of Taiwan cinema but Hou neither overplays the comic potential nor makes the characters and the whole film seem too local (unlike, say, the recent Together 甜•祕密, 2012).
On a technical side, the film benefits from a top-drawer score by Wang Xiwen 王希文 (Jump Ashin! 翻滚吧！阿信, 2011; The Soul of Bread 爱的面包魂, 2012) that’s alert to nuances of mood; occasional use of tricks like speeded-up motion; and discreet visual effects for Xiaoyang’s dreams. Wolf could have been just cloyingly cute; instead, it’s cute, funny and, in its final minutes, very moving. Much of that is due to the precision script by Hou and his collaborators (including regular Yang Yuanling 杨元铃), which satisfyingly clicks together in the final third, bringing together elements that only seemed like passing decoration (e.g. paper planes) and still springing lovely surprises (as with Fried Rice Man’s backstory).
Wolf isn’t a “big” film, with grandiose statements or major events. But it’s beautifully crafted, touches both the funny bone and the heart, and pulls off that most difficult trick of all – turning the small things into life into engaging entertainment. For that alone, it deserves an extra point.
The Chinese title simply means “South Sheep Farm”, Xiaoyang’s nickname for the cram school. Viewers are also advised to stick around until the end titles have finished, for a lovely capper between actors Cai and Lin.
Presented by Strawberry Time Films (TW), Atom Cinema (TW), CMC Entertainment (TW), Filmagic Pictures (TW). Produced by Strawberry Time Films (TW), Filmagic Pictures (TW).
Script: Hou Jiran, Yang Yuanling, He Xinming, Chen Qingyou. Photography: Zhou Yixian. Editing: Jiang Yining. Editing supervision: Li Dongquan [Wenders Li]. Music: Wang Xiwen. Title song: Wang Xiwen. Vocals: Riin. Art direction: Cai Peiling. Costume design: Wei Xiangrong. Sound: Du Duzhi. Visual effects: Qiu Zhisheng, Chen Zhihao, Lin Zhemin (Fat Face Production, Bulky Animation Studio). Animation: Su Wensheng.
Cast: Ke Zhendong (Dong), Jian Manshu (Xiaoyang), Cai Zhennan (copy-shop owner), Guo Shuyao (Cui Paopao), Lin Qingtai (priest/noodle-stall owner), Nie Yun (cram-school owner), Lu Tingwei (Fried Rice Man), Xie Xinying (Cai Yiying, Dong’s ex-girlfriend), Zhang Shuhao (Jiang Shuotao, Xiaoyang’s ex-boyfriend), Zeng Peiyu (Fried Rice Man’s ex-girlfriend), Fan Xiaofan (Xiaoyang’s mother), Wu Yanyan (baby Xiaoyang), Fan Chenxuan (young Xiaoyang), Wu Bilian (Auntie Sticky Rice), Gao Yiling (Zhi, locker renter), Zhuang Jingshen (locker renter guard), Lai Peiying (locker renter hairdresser), Li Xunwei, Luo Jihong (mobile-phone shop salesmen).
Premiere: Hong Kong Asian Film Festival (Opening Film), 2 Nov 2012.
Release: Taiwan, 9 Nov 2012.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 31 Jan 2013.)