NYAFF Review: Starry Starry Night


[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF coverage, head over here. For Japan Cuts, here.]

A sensation in Taiwan, Tom Lin’s Starry Starry Night is an absolutely gorgeous film. I’m glad it’s getting a theatrical release here in New York and hope it pops up in other cities across the country. It’s bound to be compared to Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom since both movies are about young love and the end of childhood. Yet the presentation of these themes is handled differently in the two films. While I really enjoyed Moonrise Kingdom, Starry Starry Night makes grand imaginative leaps and takes much bigger risks.

So in other words…

Yo, Moonrise Kingdom, I’m real happy for you and Imma let you finish, but Starry Starry Night is the best movie about young love I’ve seen all year!

Starry Starry Night (Xing Kong | 星空)
Director: Tom Lin
Rating: NR
Country: Taiwan
Release Date: July 6th, 2012 (New York City)

At age 13, everything seems loaded with meaning, so your first taste of love and first taste of loss seem especially potent. Love at that age can feel so wonderful because there’s just a hint of adult understanding and a lot of childlike earnestness. It’s a time when you still believe in the pop song version of true love and are not embarrassed by the belief. For Mei (Xu Jiao) and Jay (Lin Hui-min), being together means mutual understanding when no one else seems to understand — not their peers, not their parents, not their teachers. It’s that line out of Jon Brion’s dour love song “Here We Go”: “The feeling that someone really gets you / It’s something that no one should object to.”

Jay’s new in school, Mei’s looking for an emotional connection of some kind because she’s not getting it at home from her parents. So, two lonely misfits, convincingly portrayed and sympathetically rendered by Jiao and Hui-min. Why not fall for each other? What Mei and Jay have is not initially an act of defiance — it’s less “us against the world” and more “you make sense in my world.”

What Starry Starry Night does so well is merge the rich feelings of adolescent love with comparable imagery. With Mei as our main character, we also tap into the richness of her imagination, which has been informed by doing jigsaw puzzles of great works of art. To have someone just rest beside you at the right moment — perhaps it’s someone you care about, perhaps he or she even lays their head on your shoulder — can be something indescribably beautiful. (Think John Updike’s “The Happiest I’ve Been.”) It’s a sense of connection without ulterior motive or artifice. Rather than just linger on an outward look of enchantment on Mei’s face, we get to see how she feels inside when Jay is beside her: it’s like flight and magic and Van Gogh oils thick and swirling into eddies in the vastness of night; love can feel like a work of art.

Love changes the landscape in Starry Starry Night, which is such a 13-year-old way of thinking that’s channeled through Lin’s adult understanding of visual metaphors. There’s a classroom decoration competition at the school, and Mei and Jay both take the reins for their class. It’s as if they’re building an ideal world for themselves. It may be made out of paper, but the personal investment is stronger than paper. Again, there’s the sudden dip into Mei’s head, and we see a world full of beautiful things that they’ve done together.

But these moments of whimsy and fantasy wouldn’t have the same kind of beauty to them if they weren’t tethered to complex emotions. That’s what surprised me most about Starry Starry Night. It could have been a merely pleasant film with fabulist touches, but those moments of high imagination are all matched by moments of great turmoil and sadness. To imagine a better world or a more fantastical one is a chance for Mei to escape all the things she doesn’t want to confront, especially not at age 13 when all you crave is some kind of stability. Mei’s parents are loveless and their marriage is falling apart, Mei’s grandfather isn’t in the best of health. What Lin does with the imagery during some of these moments is astounding — just masterful works of sound and vision. The idea of young love is fantastical, but the emotions around it are the messy, turbulent stuff of real life.

Because it’s such a visually rich story, the film rarely says too much. It lets the actors perform and allows scenes to unfold — they often show you what they feel rather than saying it. There are just two moments I’ll mention where a shot lingers a bit longer and communicates everything in the image that couldn’t be said as artfully or honestly in words. One involves Jay’s mother, a slap, and then an embrace. It feels true because of its suddenness: anger, a depth of feeling, recognition, incredible tenderness, affection. Then there’s a scene of Mei and her mother (Rene Liu) at dinner. Her mom has a moment of whimsy right out of a Godard film (she’s a disenchanted Francophile). It’s fun for a bit, but then turns painful because we realize that this was just an escape from an unbearable sorrow. Mei’s got paper, Mei’s mom has the Madison, and neither will last.

That idea of young love ending is implicit in Moonrise Kingdom, but given everything at stake in Starry Starry Night, Mei just straight out asks Jay if love can last between two people. If you believe in the pop music version of true love, you eventually have to acknowledge the pop song version of the end of love as well as all the evidence around you. It’s right there in “Hey Ya!”; the last track on Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend is “Nothing Lasts.” We know it’s got to end at some point, and they see the cracks in the wall, and yet, at that age and despite that knowledge, they are not embarrassed to believe they can prove the world wrong. At that point, Mei and Jay’s young love becomes a kind of defiance — us against the complicated effects of time.

Starry Starry Night occasionally draws too close to the cliff edge of sappiness, but it draws back just in time with those real feelings and a deep sense of what it is to be human and young and in love. The cliff edge of sap is especially visible in the film’s coda. It’s almost an unnecessary chapter that follows a perfect final sentence; almost a trainwreck but thankfully isn’t. It works in the end (or at least it did for me), because I think it’s less about a hokey conclusion and more about showing the process of involuntary memory.

Watching Starry Starry Night reminds me of being at the New York Asian Film Festival in 2007 and seeing Tetsuya Nakashima’s remarkable Memories of Matsuko (still unavailable in the United States). Both are driven by spectacular imagination, a gorgeous visual style, and heartbreaking emotions that are so fragile and so human. Like Memories of Matsuko, Starry Starry Night will be one of the best movies I’ll see this year; like Memories of Matsuko, I will never forget Starry Starry Night.

Alec Kubas-Meyer: I want to show Starry Starry Night to my little sister. She’s 12 now, going on 13, which is the age of the characters in the film. They’re in middle school, going through the trials and tribulations of the preteen/early teen years. They still have their imaginations and their hopes and dreams. That imaginative quality is beautifully rendered in the film by some really excellent use of (not perfect but good enough) CGI, and it’s not just that. Everything is beautiful. Starry Starry Night is easily one of the most beautiful movies I have seen in years, and it has the audio quality to match. I was constantly wowed by what I was watching, both visually and narratively. The main characters have some pretty amazing adventures, and the story holds together surprisingly well, especially at the end. In the final minute of the film, I was ready to get up and shout at the screen, because how dare they do that and ruin this movie. But then it ended, and it ended on just the right note. Well done team. Well done. 88 – Exceptional

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.