Taiwan, 2009, colour, 1.85:1, 109 mins.
Director: Zheng Fenfen 郑芬芬.
Taiwan’s box-office champ of 2009 is an engaging romance that’s kept light and unsaccharine.
Taibei, 2009. Easygoing twenty-something Huang Tiankuo (Peng Yuyan), who delivers lunchboxes for his restaurateur parents (Luo Bei’an, Lin Meixiu), gets to know Lin Yangyang (Chen Yihan), who devotes her life to the swimming career of her deaf elder sister Lin Xiaopeng (Chen Yanxi). Following the death of their mother, and with their Christian missionary father busy in Africa, the two sisters have lived largely alone. Communicating with Lin Yangyang via sign language, Huang Tiankuo finally succeeds in inviting her out on a date but, after an accident involving her sister, Lin Yangyang withdraws from the blossoming relationship. Huang Tiankuo, however, is not so easily put off.
Taiwan’s biggest local hit of last year , Hear Me 听说 is totally unknown beyond offshore Chinese territories like Hong Kong and Singapore (it was only just released in South Korea last month [Jun 2010]) and hardly on specialist Asian festivals’ radar either. This is a pity, as it’s superior in every way – technically, dramatically, performances – to Taiwan’s local champion of 2008, Cape No. 7 海角七号, which travelled extensively.
Made for (and released just before) the 21st Summer Deaflympics held in Taibei in Sep 2009, the movie has all the trappings of a touchy-feely, politically-correct tearjerker: deafness, Christian values, an overall positive tone, cute leads, and Taibei (in the gorgeous summery photography by Qin Dingchang 秦鼎昌) shown as a caring-and-sharing city with happy street artists and save-a-tree awareness. In practice, it’s nothing of the sort, thanks to a happy-go-lucky performance by Peng Yuyan 彭于晏 [Eddie Peng] as young male lead Huang Tiankuo, light playing by charming Chen Yihan 陈意涵 (in her first leading role) as his love interest Lin Yangyang, and comic touches from theatre actor Luo Bei’an 罗北安 and Lin Meixiu 林美秀 as his working-class parents.
The movie is a vast improvement on Keeping Watch 沉睡的青春 (2007), the debut feature by writer-director Zheng Fenfen 郑芬芬, 40, a piece of romantic whimsy that was let down by a weak female lead and much-ado-about-nothing storyline. In Hear Me, Zheng draws performances from her well-nigh perfect cast that keep the slim storyline afloat with their pure chemistry: Peng (My DNA Says I Love You 基因决定我爱你, 2007), especially, hits just the right note of insouciance without descending into cockiness. And the fact that almost all the dialogue between the three leads is conducted in sign language hardly becomes a dramatic hurdle: Zheng’s direction is ultra-smooth, the editing natural and seamless, and the camerawork by gifted d.p. Qin (My DNA; Cape No. 7; Prince of Tears 泪王子, 2009) has an unforced sense of composition.
On the debit side, it’s never explained until too late how Huang Tiankuo comes to know sign language so he can communicate with the sisters, and a surprise twist near the end is handled humorously but is a tad unbelievable. The film would also benefit from a slight trim in the latter half, when nothing much happens for a while, but is always an easy watch.
Presented by Trigram Films (TW). Produced by Trigram Films (TW), Great Vision Film & TV (TW).
Script: Zheng Fenfen. Photography: Qin Dingchang. Editing supervision: Liao Qingsong. Editing: Gu Xiaoyun. Music: Huang Yunling, Zhong Xingmin [Baby-C]. Art direction: Huang Qianrong. Costume design: Chen Yaojun. Sound: Zhu Shiyi, Du Duzhi.
Cast: Peng Yuyan [Eddie Peng] (Huang Tiankuo), Chen Yihan (Lin Yangyang), Chen Yanxi [Michelle Chen] (Lin Xiaopeng, Lin Yangyang’s elder sister), Luo Bei’an (Huang Tiankuo’s father), Lin Meixiu (Huang Tiankuo’s mother), Liu Junhong (Lin Xiaopeng’s trainer), Yu Kehong, Chen Liru, You Junzhi, Yu Hongxuan, Zhu Xuanjie, Xu Weixuan, Zhong Zhicheng (swimming-team members), PICKS (street band), Huang Guanyu (street-mime artist), Wang Yubin (noodle-shop owner), Wang Du Huizhen (owner’s mother), Chen Xisheng (father’s voice), Zeng Ruoning (young Lin Xiaopeng), Zeng Ruo’en (young Lin Yangyang).
Release: Taiwan, 28 Aug 2009.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 12 Jul 2010.)