Doppelgangers, long-lost brothers and incestuous gay cousins are just some of the new ingredients that make “Tiny Times 3.0” even more ridiculous than its predecessors. Demonstrating no improvement in terms of filmmaking technique or narrative logic, China’s bestselling author-turned-helmer-scribe Guo Jingming continues to rely on pretty faces and ultra-glossy production design to dazzle the eye, but the film’s vacuous characters and inherent vanity have become awfully grating — unless, that is, you’re one of the millions of teenyboppers that make up Guo’s fanbase. Repeat viewings will ensure splashy local B.O. returns in line with previous installments.
It’s a sign of the series’ dwindling creativity that “Tiny Times 3.0” apes the formula of nearly every other mainland romantic comedy by shooting in a foreign location — in this case, Rome, where Gu Li (Amber Kuo), heiress and CFO of the style bible known as M.E. magazine, goes to attend a fashion show. At the insistence of M.E. editor-in-chief Gong Ming (Canadian-born Singaporean-New Zealander Vivian Dawson, replacing Rhydian Vaughan), Lin Xiao (Mini Yang), Gu’s best friend, follows suit, with pals Nan Xiang (Bea Hayden) and Ruby (Hsieh Yi-lin) in tow. A madcap chase through touristy streets segues into the spectacle of all four femmes sashaying along in garish couture, pronouncing the city’s name as “Rorr-maaah” with a growl that recalls the MGM lion. Wall-to-wall trattoria music reminds viewers (as if they’d forget) that they’re in Italy.
When in Rome, Gu runs into her cousin Neil (Korean-American boy-band idol Lee Hyun-jae), an Ivy League law student who’s as idle and overdressed as all the other characters. Then, without the slightest buildup or explanation, Lin is shown flying home for the funeral of her lover, Chong-guang (Chen Xuedong), who’s also Gong’s half-brother. The mood doesn’t quite darken so much as gain in silliness as a Chong-guang lookalike named Lu Xiao, sporting bleached blond hair and prominent features that suggest a Botox overdose (he’s played by Chen with recognizable prosthetics), soon appears on the cover of M.E. While anyone would have put two and two together, the terminally ditzy Lin spends most of the film puzzling over his true identity.
In an equally abrupt turn, Gu Zhun (Taiwanese model Ming) comes out of nowhere, claiming to be Gu’s illegitimate half-brother and holder of 20% of their father’s company, Shenggu. Since the company has been forcibly acquired by M.E., the siblings together plot to take back their inheritance.
Just as in “Tiny Times 2.0,” a fluffy sense of fun prevails so long as the the women are in partying or catwalking mode. But then they’ll turn serious, whether offering florid protestations of love or engaging in inane corporate maneuvers; the more they strut around trying to act grown-up, the more infantile they look. The first film was a cutesy celebration of female camaraderie, while the sequel empowered its women with careers and soaring ambitions. Here, however, the characters fret over boy troubles and turn on each other for throwaway reasons. As in every movie of this sort, they fight, kiss and eventually make up, but the routine manages to be at once rowdier and less engaging than ever.
Kuo continues to lead the pack with her spunky portrayal of a sharp-tongued, hard-assed businesswoman. Mopey and lovelorn, Yang has few opportunities to apply her usual vivacious charm, or even flaunt her sensational figure (she was well into her pregnancy at the time of shooting), while Hsieh and Hayden don’t get to expand on their respective roles of tomboyish clown and ill-fated beauty. Dealing the franchise a major blow is the exit of Welsh-Taiwanese thesp Vaughan, as his Gong was Gu’s only interesting foil; Dawson is much more wooden, generates no chemistry with the distaff cast, and speaks his Mandarin lines to barely intelligible effect.
Meanwhile, as the romantic threads continue to develop in confusing directions, so the franchise has become more homoerotic with each installment. Guo must be the first mainland helmer to take the Japanese manga genre known as boys’ love (gay softcore porn aimed at schoolgirls) to such voyeuristic levels, epitomized by one gratuitous bedroom shot of Gu Li’s b.f., Gu Yuan (Kai Ko), his nude body draped with rose petals. (When he decides to propose to her, he rehearses his moves using boys as stand-ins.) These elements — including the flirtation between Neil and Zhun — may broaden the series’ reach in LGBT circles, even if Guo’s penchant for casting Caucasian-looking thesps with hyper-chiseled features basically results in a coterie of clones.
Due to possible crew changes, craft contributions are still flashy but somewhat lacking in refinement. The production design reveals a scaled-down budget, with less opulent sets, less champagne being guzzled and fewer costume changes. Series-appointed lenser Randy Che finally goes a little easy on the exaggerated closeups, but his camera still spins to nauseating effect. The film’s Chinese title means “Times of Gold Filligree.”