[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.]
It makes sense when a screenwriter becomes a director. There’s a clear, logical progression from one role to the next. It’s much stranger when an author becomes a director. Books are adapted to films all the time, but I can’t think of any adaptations (notable or otherwise) which were directed by the author. It probably happens every once in a while, but the skills from novel-writing don’t obviously translate to screenwriting and directing, and most of them probably aren’t worth watching.
But You Are the Apple of My Eye is an exception. Giddens Ko, whose credentials included over 60 books and a single short film, decided to adapt his semi-autobiographical book of the same name. And it is brilliant.
You Are the Apple of My Eye (Na Xie Nian, Wo Men Yi Qi Zhui De Nu Hai | 那些年，我们一起追的女孩)
Director: Giddens Ko
You Are the Apple of My Eye tells the story of Ko Ching-teng (Zhendong Ke), who stands in for Giddens Ko, and his relationship with Shen Chia-yi (Michelle Chen), who stands in for Shen Chia-yi. Starting off in high school, Ching-teng is a troublemaker who, after an incredibly choreographed masturbation session, is forced to sit in front of Chia-yi, who is the the class’s top student, so she can keep an eye on him. Their relationship starts off predictably negative, but after a selfless act on Ching-teng’s part, she decides to help him out. At the time, Ching-teng was consistently failing all of his tests and needed to turn his studies around, but he had no drive to do so. Chia-yi begins to give him quizzes, which she grades, in order to make him understand some of the topics.
Their relationship progresses over the course of a few years, but the two never actually date. When they go to college, they talk every night for a while, and they see each other on breaks, but it stays as friends. Kind of. It is clear early on that Ching-teng likes Chia-yi, and both of them know it. Even so, he refuses to let her say what she feels, because he wants to keep chasing her, and a rejection would mean he couldn’t do that. It’s as powerful as it is depressing, and seeing Chia-yi find herself in actual relationships while Ching-teng continues to have feelings for her is sometimes difficult to watch.
Although the story does go beyond college, the formative years in high school and the destructive years of college make up the bulk of the movie. The high school years are mostly what you’d expect: people with hopes and dreams, seeing their friends every day and thinking they can take on the world. A scene where Ching-teng, Chia-yi, and their friends talk about what they want to do in the future exemplifies that feeling. It’s obvious not everyone will end up where they want to (or think they want to), but their optimism is nonetheless important. A good word to describe the high school years would be “silly,” but I don’t think that really gets things across. Had that high school section been the entirety of the film, the title Vulgaria would not have been misused. Aside from the epic masturbation scene and the strangest POV shot I have ever seen in a film (and I’ve seen Enter the Void), it’s just got a generally vulgar tone that is used to excellent effect.
In college, things aren’t as happy. Although things can still be (and are) vulgar and ridiculous, the film takes on a much more somber tone. The relationship which was mostly just fun and flirty became more serious, even if it was never a serious relationship. But Ching-teng and Chia-yi drift apart, and there are two years where they don’t talk. A major disaster brings the two of them together again (in a way), but it’s really not the same. On one of the most important days of her life, though, Chia-yi reaches out to him. It’s a bittersweet moment, and I was all mixed up inside, much in the same way Ching-teng was, although I imagine Giddens Ko’s real reaction was a bit more extreme.
What I’m trying to get at is that You Are the Apple of My Eye has a really compelling story. As with any film adaptation, it has to be played up to make a film worth watching. Facts and moments need to be condensed to something that people will want to sit through. I don’t know how similar the film is to the book, or how similar it is to reality. I imagine in some ways it’s closer to reality, because Giddens Ko is able to show people what it looked like (and the high school scenes were actually shot on location at his old high school), but the duration of a movie vs. the length of a book means there is probably much more to the story in the book, and obviously more to the real events.
If I had to guess, the moments that best reflect reality are the ones emphasized in the final montage. At a pivotal point in Ching-teng and Chia-yi’s relationship, many of the hugely important scenes are essentially recapped (plus one or two things that I’m pretty sure weren’t in the film otherwise). Although it’s likely they weren’t all structured in that way, the beats that it hits seem to be the ones that are the most significant to the story, and it’s likely that those are the ones that really stuck with Giddens Ko throughout his life.
I didn’t know that You Are the Apple of My Eye was a debut feature film until after the fact, and I was very surprised to hear that. Aside from a short film he did in 2008 and a screenplay he adapted from another book the year that he made You Are the Apple of My Eye, he had no experience with film production. You’d never know from seeing this movie, though. The direction is fantastic, and everything fits together incredibly well. The only thing that ever seemed amatuerish is something that could just as easily be seen as auteurish. Periodically, the film would go to static, intensely color-corrected shots of sets. Nothing really happens in them and they usually don’t last very long, but they always stuck out when I saw them.
But that hardly matters in the grand scheme of things. You Are the Apple of My Eye is an amazing film. In a way, it kind of reminds me of 50/50. What made that film really shine was its honesty, and much of that came from the screenplay, which was loosely based on the screenwriter’s own experience with cancer. Here, with Giddens Ko writing and directing the story of his own life, he lays everything bare. He didn’t have to, certainly, and another person who experienced the same thing may have made a movie with a regular, boring happy ending. But that’s not what we get, and that is a damn good thing, because what we get is so, so much better.[You can see You Are the Apple of My Eye at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center on Sunday July 1st at 6:00 PM and Monday, July 2nd at 6:30 PM. Director Giddens Ko and costar Michelle Chen will be attending both screenings! An encore screening will take place Monday, July 9th.]