How Are You
China, 2017, colour, 2.35:1, 88 mins.
Director: Yang Yongchun 杨永春.
Good-natured high-school comedy gets by on its pacey packaging and likeable performances.
Haibin city, Guangdong province, southern China, late 1990s. During her second year at Haibin Senior High, Han Meimei (Zhang Zifeng) re-meets Li Lei (Zhang Yijie), whom she has always liked but hasn’t seen since they were classmates at junior high. Due to his mother’s persistence, Li Lei has always scored good marks in English, unlike Han Meimei who’s only good at sports. However, both their real interests lie elsewhere – his in electronics, hers in sketching. Han Meimei’s deskmate and best friend, Wei Hua (Chen Zining), encourages her to go after Li Lei, so she tries various ruses to attract his attention. During the summer holidays she even studies hard at English, hoping to form a bond with him that way. But when they return to school, a new beauty, Su Weifang (Ma Zehan), joins the class and zeroes in on Li Lei. Fed up, Han Meimei regains her respect for him only when he leads a rebellion against a new English teacher (Chang Cheng) who’s been exploiting the students’ desire to get good marks.
If for nothing else, How Are You 李梅和韩梅梅 昨日重现 will go down in history as the first film to be based on a language textbook – in this case the titular, illustrated tome (see below) used to teach English to Mainland junior-high students (i.e. aged 12-15) during the 1990s. Five writers have taken the main characters in the textbook and spun a lighthearted puppy love/student japes story, all brightly directed by Yang Yongchun 杨永春, 34, in her first feature after co-directing TV drama series Sunshine in Me 骄阳似我 (2014). What it lacks in structure and emotional depth it makes up for with its good-natured feel, though the potentially 6/10 film loses a point for its weak final half-hour.
Enlivened by a young cast, a gentle dose of late 1990s nostalgia, and sharp pacing and cutting, the first hour is very entertaining in a predictable way; thereafter, the plot suddenly runs out of steam, limping across the finishing line with a rote feel-good ending (students hold a fund-raising concert to raise funds for a schoolmate’s operation) and a clumsy coda set in the present. Like scores of other high-school dramas, it’s aimed specifically at the generation – now in its 30s – that used the textbook at school and is now an influential demographic in the country. The film grossed RMB41 million, respectable given its lack of major stars but nothing special.
After introducing tomboy Han Meimei at junior high – where she’s good at sports but laughable in English classes – the main story picks up two years later when she’s in second-year senior high and is reunited with former classmate Li Lei, who’s a whiz at English (thanks to his mum’s bullying) but would rather fiddle around with electronics. Encouraged by her deskmate and BFF Wei Hua, Han Meimei makes attempts to get Li Lei to notice her – and that’s basically the plot for the next hour, a series of short comic sketches of frustrated teenage love, played out by a likeable cast. The film moves at a clip, and looks as if it was extensively storyboarded – which evokes the feel of the original textbook’s cartoon panels but restricts the characters’ natural development, to a point where the film doesn’t really engage the viewer emotionally in its latter stages.
Child actress Zhang Zifeng 张子枫, whose first film role was as the orphaned (poster) girl in Aftershock 唐山大地震 (2010), and subsequently made a mark in films like My Old Classmate 同桌的妳 (2014) and Detective Chinatown 唐人街探案 (2015), is now at the ripe old age of 16 and convincingly plays Han Meimei throughout her mid- to late teens. Zhang’s sparky performance, which is in synch with the film’s tempo, drives the whole thing, and luckily she’s on screen most of the time. As Li Lei, her similarly experienced co-star Zhang Yijie 张逸杰, 18, is okay in a somewhat gormless way but outclassed in personality by newcomers Wang Xudong 王旭东, 22, as his entrepreneurial best pal and by Cheng Zining 成梓宁, also 22, as Han Meimei’s pushy BFF. The adults are largely parent/teacher cut-outs, with only TV actor Chang Cheng 常铖 getting a role to sink his teeth into as an ambitious English teacher who pushes his luck.
Packaging, which is thankfully light on cute animated inserts, is smooth, with bright, sharp photography by Zhao Yuqing 赵昱清 (caper comedy Coming Back 回马枪, 2011) and subtle period art direction by Cao Yu 曹宇. Set in the fictional city of Haibin, Guangdong province, the film was shot in Zhuhai, just across from Hong Kong. The Chinese title means “Li Lei and Han Meimei: Yesterday Once More”, underscoring the lightly nostalgic tone.
Presented by Chengdu Hollysound Film & TV Media (CN).
Script: Xiao Li Renyi, Yang Yongchun, Chen Lin, Luo Ping, Wu Tong. Photography: Zhao Yuqing. Editing: Deng Wentao, Chen Lin. Music: Yang Shouzhu. Additional music: Guo Zixing. Lyrics: Wen Hong, Yong Ning, Xiao Xiang. Art direction: Cao Yu. Styling: Zhao Chunkai. Sound: Zhang Wei. Visual effects: Dong Jianfeng. Executive direction: Peng Jianwei.
Cast: Zhang Zifeng (Han Meimei), Zhang Yijie (Li Lei), Cheng Zining (Wei Hua), Li Jiacheng (Lin Tao), Chang Cheng (Sun Sicheng), Wang Xudong (Sun Huimin), Zhang Chenghang (Ling Feng), Miao Haojun (Wang, bicycle repairman), Hua Xi (Hu, chemistry teacher), Ma Zehan (Su Weifang, class beauty), Ying Yihan (Ma Lili), Zhu Ziyan (Gao Fanyan, English teacher), Lu Zhong (Wang, headmaster), Li Yang (Li Ming), Hao Ping (Han Dahai, Han Meimei’s father), Wang Jinghua (Wang Haiyan, Li Lei’s mother), Liang Aiqi (Lei Lei), Zhan Run (adult Han Meimei), Silas Levi Neuhaus (Jim Green, UK student), Marlie (Lily, US student twin), Jazzie (Lucy, US student twin), Duan Gang (director of education), Zhou Yongyao (Chinese teacher), Chen Feifei (teacher in storehouse), Peng Jianwei (security guard).
Release: China, 9 Jun 2017.