Like a latte with caramel on top and coffee residue at the bottom, “First Time” starts off as a treacly teen daydream and changes course halfway through to deconstruct its own romantic myth. Mainland helmer Han Yan depicts puppy love from a girl’s perspective, then challenges its sugar-coated idealism with a revelatory boy’s version. Unabashedly artificial in its vaguely Mediterranean ambience, as well as on an emotional level, the pic nonetheless impresses as an exercise in narrative ingenuity, and brings out maximum appeal from its leads. Tween-targeted item is generating positive local B.O., but holds less promise outside Chinese-speaking territories.
The pic is split into two parts of 39 minutes and 63 minutes each, delineated by shots of cassette tapes labeled “Side A” and “Side B.” In the first story, college student Song Shiqiao (Angelababy) pours out her fantasies about love on a tape recorder. Her intended audience is Gong Ning (Mark Chao), a classmate she’s carried a torch for since he suddenly dropped out of school years ago. One day, they recognize each other under comical circumstances in an amusement park, where Ning is performing with his band.
Their early dating attempts are thwarted by Shiqiao’s mom (Jiang Shan), who worries that emotional upheavals may exacerbate her daughter’s respiratory paralysis, the same illness that took her husband’s life. However, her apprehension is offset by the joy Ning brings Shiqiao, who since childhood has been deprived of intense experiences — running, dancing or falling in love. All is hunky-dory until Shiqiao inadvertently discovers that Ning has been lying about his family background.
At this point, “Side B,” from Ning’s point of view, takes over, and every key scene is replayed and reprised to clever effect, offering motives for his actions and giving sharper definition to his character. The epilogue springs another surprise that reaffirms Shiqiao’s fundamental values of love by infusing them with the spirit of carpe diem.
Although the pic cites as its source the 2003 Korean romance ” … ing,” crucial modifications have been made not only in the way the plot is unraveled, but also in mood and style. The protags here have sunnier dispositions, and their indefensibly cheesy dating rituals nonetheless generate a dynamic, youthful vibe propelled by Ning’s pop-rock performances. The playful, bosom-buddy interactions between Shiqiao and her mother are paralleled by the more fraught but no less loving relationship between Ning and his widower father (Zhao Shuhai).
Han, whose unreleased debut feature was part of “Winds of September,” a trilogy on youths’ violent rites of passage, is more in touch with his material in the second half of “First Time.” In ironic counterpoint to the dollhouse aesthetics of the first half, “Side B’s” cool, blue color scheme and grungier sets convey a brooding atmosphere. The characters have a harder edge, and their dilemmas — whether to chase their own dreams or fulfill their parents’ expectations — speak more clearly to the current generation.
Fledgling Hong Kong singer-thesp Angelababy hasn’t entirely shaken off her model-esque mannerisms; nevertheless, the chemistry she has with co-star Zhao prevents her self-conscious poses from being too grating. The thesps’ perfs also mature in step with their characters’ eventual coming of age. A surprise scene-stealer is Cindy Yen as Ning’s ex-g.f. Pang Wei, who gradually reveals a sympathetic nature beneath her hard, practical shell.
Locations (on Xiamen’s Gulangyu Island) are chosen for continental flavor and postcard prettiness rather than local color. Similarly, the production design sports a cute look compounded by kooky animation and bits of ’90s nostalgia. Reflecting the fact that Gulangyu has the largest national concentration of pianos, the slushy score bangs on the ivories almost incessantly. Scenes are glaringly overlit, and often not from a natural source.