When people use the word “cute” to describe a movie, it’s usually dismissive. “It was cute,” as if there was an unstated “Eh” at the beginning of the sentence; as if cuteness was all it achieves and it makes no deeper impression than that.
When a Wolf Falls in Love with a Sheep is a very cute movie, which makes sense given what it’s about, and yet I don’t mean cute as a pejorative.
This is a story about break-ups, young love, and new beginnings. The teenage romance gets filtered through the minds of our two leads, who are fueled by optimism rather than angst. That means fantasy and magical thinking and just the right amount of whimsy. Even if it’s not deep in a mature way, there’s more to it than just “cute.”
[For the next few weeks, we will be covering the 2013 New York Asian Film Festival and the 2013 Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF 2013 coverage, click here. For Japan Cuts 2013 coverage, click here.]
When a Wolf Falls in Love with a Sheep (南方小羊牧場)
Director: Hou Chi-Jan
Release Date: November 9, 2012 (Taiwan)
I mentioned in yesterday’s review of Taiwan Black Movies, Woman Revenger, and Never Too Late to Repent that this movie worked as a kind of palate cleanse. After an afternoon of gritty old Taiwanese exploitation movies, here was a very charming romantic comedy about two teens learning to get over their first real heartbreaks. Apart from a contrast in content, When a Wolf Falls in Love with a Sheep worked as a contrast in style for director Hou Chi-Jan. His documentary on Taiwanese exploitation movies was pretty dry and austere, whereas Wolf is vibrant. This is a colorful romance bubbling with energy and hope.
The film follows a lovesick guy named Tung, played by Kai Ko of You Are the Apple of My Eye (another great Taiwanese film). His girlfriend leaves him to go away to cram school, and that leaves him in a major funk. After getting evicted from his apartment, he goes out in search of her. This leads him to a job at a copy shop in a busy, cram school-filled part of the city. Tung eventually meets Yang (Chien Man-Shu), a shy cram school employee and aspiring artist. She draws little sheep in the corners of exams, but none of the students seem to notice. Tung does, and while at the copy shop he accidentally starts flirting with her by drawing a wolf who responds to the sheep.
Yes, it’s cute. Even the drawings that Tung and Yang do are so darn adorable that they’d make me wince if the movie wasn’t so sincere. There’s more to this than mere cuteness because there’s a real affection for these characters. Both Tung and Yang are dreamers, and this dream-stuff of the two leads defines the tone and presentation of the film. When a Wolf Falls in Love with a Sheep is their movie from their point of view.
After Tung gets dumped, there’s a herky jerky, stop-and-start slump to his life, so Hou Chi-Jan uses stop-motion animation to represent this visually. It looks a bit like the music video for Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer,” or maybe the goofiest bits from Better Off Dead. When Tung and Yang begin their correspondence of animal drawings, they come alive through animation, which reminded me a little of One Crazy Summer. There’s a lightness and breeziness to so much of When a Wolf Falls in Love with a Sheep that’s a bit like those 80s teen rom-coms. Maybe part of the enjoyment I got from this movie is nostalgia for being a teenager in love and a nostalgia for the teenagers-in-love movies of the 80s.
Unlike those 80s teen rom-coms, When a Wolf Falls in Love with Sheep has no upper-class villains or a competition of some kind at the end. There aren’t any snooty rivals trying to woo Tung or Yang either, which is refreshing. This is a movie rooted in the characters’s young emotional lives, and the drama is generated from the audience’s sense of expectation. These two would be great for each other, but when will they finally realize it? They both have to get over their exes first, in which case it seems more like a matter of how than when.
There are two other movies with similar concerns as When a Wolf Falls in Love with a Sheep. The big one is Amelie, and a lot of the sweet whimsy of that Jean-Pierre Jeunet film finds its way into this movie. Yang is obsessed with magical thinking. She’s spent her entire life making decisions by counting to 100. She obsesses over objects and what they must mean to people. Tung has similarly started doing good deeds for others who’ve lost things or left things behind. While it sounds noble, it’s really his own way of keeping his hope alive for a reunion with his ex-girlfriend. If someone else can get back something they’ve lost, maybe he can too.
The other movie I’m reminded of is Say Anything…, the best of the 80s teen romances. There’s a lot of brightness in both these movies, and a human heart as well. The fantastical moments that color the world of When a Wolf Falls in Love with a Sheep are grounded in genuine human feelings, even if they are based on the limited experiences of teenage life. Maybe the limited experience results in heightened emotions. Both Ko and Chien render their characters believable through their performances. Sure, they live in a world that seems frenetic and a little unreal, but they’re acting real in it.
I’ve spent a lot of this review referencing other movies, and yet When a Wolf Falls in Love with a Sheep is not a movie built on overt references. There’s an unexpectedly magical scene in this movie about an umbrella. Hou Chi-Jan originally intended to play “Singin’ In the Rain” or “The Rainbow Connection” over the scene, which would have ruined it — I would have been taken out of the moment and put directly in mind of another movie. Instead, he lets the original score do its own work, and these references come by way of the movie’s tonal implications and my own inference. It’s not “Singin’ In the Rain,” but the music has the charm of “Singin’ in the Rain.” Yang and Tung aren’t Amelie or the John Cusack protagonists of 80s teen rom-coms, but they all share similar qualities of whimsy and oddball human decency.
I watch movies in the hope that I’ll see something I haven’t seen before. There’s a moment of that in the grand gesture of When a Wolf Falls in Love with a Sheep. I’m reminded of other moments in my life that made me feel the same thing, and other movies too. It’s a little paradoxical: I want to see new things to relive the experience of seeing something new, and I want to feel something familiar because of it. When a Wolf Falls in Love with a Sheep may not be a particularly profound film, but it’s cute, and its cuteness puts me in mind of beautiful things.