Remember your college days? Those were blissful times for most: a snapshot of a moment when you were too young to have to deal with grown-up responsibilities like mortgages and a job, but old enough to go on a backpacking trip with your best friends. Actor-turned-director Michelle Chong's second feature film, 3 Peas In A Pod, is most effective when it tries to capture those heady, reckless days of youth and freedom. But, in the film's final, very strange half hour, the dialogue and acting skills of its young cast - variable in quality throughout - become less forgiveable just when they need to really step up to the plate and deliver.
The 3 Peas of the film's title are a trio of best friends: Penny (newcomer Jae Liew), Peter (Alexander Lee Eusebio) and Perry (Calvin Chen of Taiwanese boyband Fahrenheit). Their college years have come to an end, and angsty rich boy Peter suggests that they take a trip across Australia before they must return to their respective home countries. Along the way, their friendship deepens but is also sorely tested, as the three try to figure out just what they're feeling while trapped in an awkward, hormonally-charged triangle of love and a little lust.
There are little moments in 3 Peas In A Pod that work quite well. Her three young, telegenic leads - all making their cinematic debuts, with Liew never having acted before - share a believable chemistry in the film's more light-hearted moments. Everything looks great: Chong is clearly working with a larger budget and more sponsors after the runaway success of her first film, Almost Famous. This means she has the resources to bring her camera into the sky, and she captures some lovely aerial footage of this road trip across the unspoilt natural beauty of the Australian countryside.
What works considerably less well is Chong's script. The first hour or so is passably fluffy, as Penny pines after Peter and Perry tries to get in the way. The dialogue isn't particularly good, but it's adequate. Then, Chong switches gears, throwing a twist in near the end of the film that's intriguing in its intent but hopelessly flawed in its execution. In retrospect, it's easy to see what she's going for: the shift in tone is meant to lend depth and complexity to an otherwise feather-light chronicle of these three friends' literal and romantic (mis)adventures.
But it all unfolds like a poorly-cut soap opera. Chong splices earlier moments together in a montage that could easily alienate or annoy audiences, driving home the point of her tale in so obvious a way that it makes her characters seem more creepy than complicated. It doesn't help that her three lead actors aren't quite strong enough to carry the darker aspects of the material. Chen does the best, most impressive work, but it feels like a thankless task for the poor man when all is said, done and revealed.
There's a good story lurking somewhere in the heart of 3 Peas In A Pod. It's hard to shake the feeling that Chong could have found more emotional truth and power if she had played the anguish of love - requited and unrequited - in a more straightforward, less sensationalistic manner. Instead, any social messages her film contains are buried beneath layers of artifice and over-zealous editing.
Summary: A road trip that could have gone somewhere - but winds up quite hopelessly lost.
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Tiny Times arrives in cinemas trailing a perfect storm of media controversy in its wake. What, you might ask, could be so controversial about a film revolving around the trials and tribulations of four beautiful young girls living in Shanghai? 'More than you might imagine', reply the critics. Several from mainland China have taken particular issue with Tiny Times' blithe superficiality and unrepentant materialism. There's certainly a great deal of truth to that. But Tiny Times' greatest flaw is less its failure to connect with the common man, and more its inability to really connect with its own story and set of characters.
Director Guo Jingming - who adapted the screenplay from his own bestselling novel - trains his camera firmly on a quartet of best friends: klutzy but well-meaning Lin Xiao (Yang Mi); steely businesswoman Gu Li (Amber Kuo); fragile wannabe fashion designer Nan Xiang (Bea Hayden); and dreamy comic sidekick Tang Wanru (Hsieh Yi-Lin). The film's central narrative focuses on Lin Xiao blundering her way into a high-powered job as assistant to fashion magazine magnate Gong Ming (Rhydian Vaughan), but is really about the friendships and relationships of the four girls.
There's no denying that Tiny Times glorifies rather than analyses the decadent lifestyle currently enjoyed by many members of the metropolitan city's new class of nouveau riche. Gu Li is established as the richest of the four girls, but it's never really explained how the other three have come by what appear to be rather substantial nest eggs. They stay in a fancy apartment, wear lovely clothes, and generally swish through life with little concern for matters related to money. This is not a movie intending to reflect the lives of the 99% - certainly not when one of the biggest relationship problems in the film derives from the fact that the immensely wealthy Gu Li simply isn't 'old-money' enough for her scandalously rich boyfriend's family.
What's more annoying - and even offensive - about Tiny Times is its failure to drum up any kind of real drama in such a heightened setting. If Guo is so intent on depicting the lives of the rich and famous, why are their problems so terrifyingly banal? The biggest challenge the four girls have to surmount is - quite literally - a traffic jam. More interesting storylines (Nan Xiang's abusive-yet-loving ex-boyfriend) and characters (the intriguingly fish-out-of-water Wanru) are benched in favour of plotlines that test the patience of even the most forgiving viewers (Lin Xiao discovering yet another way in which Gong Ming is secretly a kindred spirit).
It's really Guo's cast that saves the film from itself. Think a little harder about it, and it's nigh on impossible to imagine why these four girls are such fast friends in the first place. But the four lead actresses radiate sweet, sparkly chemistry with one another and the rest of the cast: a point that's underscored by the goofy music video (better in parts than much of the actual movie) that plays charmingly over the end credits. It's almost enough to sell the movie by focusing solely on the angle of friendship while ignoring its more troubling messages about money, wealth and self-worth. Kuo, in particular, is worthy of special mention: she transforms Gu Li into an ice maiden with a heart full of warmth and fire, parlaying her haughty competence into something appealing rather than annoying.
As a film about fortune and friendship, then, Tiny Times is a passable - though not hugely engrossing - way to spend a couple of hours. Anyone looking for astute social commentary about China's fast-changing socio-economic landscape, however, should look elsewhere. Tiny Times is a frustratingly lopsided picture of youth sealed within a bubble of wealth and privilege, reflecting approximately none of the concerns experienced by the main characters' real-life counterparts.
Summary: Sex In The City: Shanghai Glam - featuring characters about 50% less interesting and relatable.
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars