My favourite kind of film – that unexpected treat, which I discover with no knowledge of what world I am about to enter, and find myself not only charmed, but that it hits some very personal notes for me also. I have read some rather middling reviews for the film, but for me this was a treat of the highest order, and a personal journey I am glad I took.
“Starry Starry Night” is yet another film based on a picture book by Jimmy Liao (see previous reviews of the sublime “Turn Left, Turn Right” and the less balanced “The Sound of Colours”). Thirteen year old Mei (Josie Xu)* is going through a bit of a crisis. Her doting Grandfather is dying, her Parents and on the verge of Divorce, and she feels alienated from her peers. She hides away somewhat in a world of her own, often populated by imaginary characters based on the toys made by her Grandfather. When a new boy, Jay (Eric Lin) joins her class, she finds a kindred spirit, and a friendship, maybe even romance blossoms. When their school project is ruined by some of the other children in school, they decide to take a trip to her now deceased Grandfather’s Mountain Home. What life lessons will the two learn on this journey?
I’m not usually one for putting too much of myself obviously in my reviews, but in this case I feel it is important. My parents split up when I was just a little younger than Mei. It confused me, mostly because I knew no-one else that had been through this. Although I was not alone as Mei (I have a sibling), so much of this called out to me. My parent’s divorce happened with me ignoring the signs, arguments behind closed doors, difficult silences at mealtimes, an almost gentle decay of the family unit until that moment of separation. I too found it hard to communicate with my peers about this, and struggled to deal with it, and like Mei took comfort in an imaginary world, and occasionally obsessive behaviour. So, you could say this one really spoke to me.
The film is beautifully shot, and sparingly uses fantasy imagery to show Mei’s state of mind – sometimes emotions are betrayed by animated shadows, or a walk through the streets with her Origami Animals, or even a train journey through Van Gogh’s titular painting. These moments are not only gorgeous and fantastical, but they are also used with restraint, more like punctuation than the story itself.
Josie Xu is equally as beguiling as the lead character – she is often a girl of few words, except when she is with Jay (when you cannot shut her up) – her performance seems honest and true. She has a chemistry with newcomer Eric Lin, which belies their ages, and makes even a potentially difficult scene in the woods actually seem very touching and poignant.
Rene Liu is also excellent as the Mother, again reminding me of my own mother who took refuge at this time in memories and alcohol. What is important though is that we only ever really see or hear things from Mei’s point of view – a mumbled argument behind a door, the way things that used to be commonplace (like the family doing a jigsaw together) suddenly disappear from the agenda – so these adults are sketchy at best, but for me that is the point. At Thirteen we are on the cusp of adulthood physically, but mentally we have a long way to go before we are mature enough to understand the subtleties of emotions and relationships and love.
I will say that the actual night in the woods is not quite as successful as it should have been, it is a little too dark (literally rather than metaphorically) to always understand what is going on, and whilst I loved the way Mei’s eventually fever dream played out, I think I would have liked to have seen just one more scene between her and Jay. This is because it is a friendship I can believe in. Not only that, but in Jay’s stoic silence about his own family breakdown, he showed a different way of dealing with it – for him it was in a silent rage, occasionally exploding in a basically impotent rage. I was in that place too.
There is a little coda to the film, where “years later”, a grown up Mei (LunMei Kwai) finds some closure to the events in the film – I am torn as to whether this is a lovely way to close off the film, or maybe I would have preferred the film to have ended with Mei’s speech about being Thirteen and some things just left up to me to digest. It is a lovely moment though, so right now I am glad it is there.
To be honest, this is one of the most beautiful and touching films that I have seen this year – although I am certain my feelings for it are amplified because of the emotional connotations it has for me. Yet, it did not make me sad, it made me nostalgic, and maybe even happy that the feelings I had back then, the small fantasy life I withdrew into, was not not that unusual. Highly Recommended
* I notice the IMDB entry is a bit confusing, as young Miss Xu gets two entries, one as Jiao Xu – it is however the same person – she did indeed play a little boy in “CJ7”