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Film Review: ‘Tiny Times’

With:

Mini Yang, Kai Ko Cheng-tung, Amber Kuo, Bea Hayden, Hsieh Yi-lin, Rhydian Vaughan, Cheney, Li Yueming, Jo Jiang, Calvin Tu, Kiwi Shang, Julie Ting, Wang Lin. (Mandarin, English dialogue)

Trotting out more high heels and far-fetched plot twists than an Almodovar film, “Tiny Times” is China’s tween girl-power fantasy extraordinaire. Adapting his bestselling serial about four bosom friends dreaming of love and success in Shanghai, novelist and first-time director Guo Jingming doesn’t have the best grasp of film language, but with its intoxicating sense of luxury it effectively taps into the nation’s aspirational drive. “Times” broke mainland opening-day B.O. records with about $11.9 million, then went on to gross more than $76.1 million in 18 days. Offshore, it’s the fetching cast, rather than the blinding bling, that will prove the hotter selling point.

SEE ALSO: Film Review: “Tiny Times 2.0”

Hailed as “the most successful writer in China today” by the New York Times in 2008, 30-year-old publisher, novelist and media-celeb Guo is certainly his country’s bestselling author, propped up by a colossal teen fanbase. He adapted the film from the first volume of “Tiny Times,” published in 2008; the other three installments are all slated for screen adaptations, to be helmed by Guo, who studied film and TV in Shanghai.

In keeping with the pan-Chinese trend in mainland filmmaking, key members of the crew and five of the six main actors hail from Taiwan. While this sets a certain look and tone, Guo’s themes are a mishmash of Japan’s femme-focused shoujo manga and China’s current wave of style-conscious romantic comedies. What’s new is how far the pic outdoes its predecessors, like 2010’s “Go Lala Go,” in wearing its price tag on its sleeve; according to production designer Rosalie Huang, a change of wardrobe was prescribed for each character in every scene, necessitating more than 3,000 costumes.

“Tiny Times” has been ridiculed on China’s microblogs for its rampant materialism and implausible contrivances: How, for example, can a recent college grad immediately become a CFO? But Guo, a small-town boy from Sichuan, articulates the cosmopolitan dreams of the masses, many of whom hail from drab, second-tier cities; seen in this light, all this ostentation is as cute and harmless as a little girl trying on her mom’s lipstick. Guo may turn opulence into rapturous spectacle, but so does Baz Luhrmann; when a character’s dressing room stretches out here like an airport runway, you may even be reminded of Jay Gatsby’s tailored shirts.

A whirlwind prologue sketches the characters in barely comprehensible outline. Flawless beauty Nan Xiang (Taiwan-born Eurasian model Bea Hayden) is a penniless fashion designer. Gu Li (Amber Kuo, “Au revoir Taipei”) is a whip-smart heiress with a double major in finance and accounting. National badminton player Tang Wanru (Taiwanese fashion lampoonist Hsieh Yi-lin, aka Miss Lin) is butch, gluttonous and hopelessly romantic. Providing voiceover as well as the central viewpoint is Lin Xiao, “the most ordinary girl in the story” — a wild understatement, as she’s played by mainland bombshell Mini Yang (“Painted Skin: The Resurrection”).

The first act is largely devoted to Lin’s job hunt as she heads to an interview with ME magazine, Shanghai’s style oracle, and is selected from a pool of more qualified candidates to be the weekend personal assistant of editor-in-chief Gong Ming (Rhydian Vaughan). It’s a fairy-tale setup that borrows liberally from “The Devil Wears Prada,” as the persnickety Gong and his haughty secretary (Kiwi Shang) are recognizably modeled on the roles played by Meryl Streep and Emily Blunt, respectively. A key difference is that the icy, statuesque Vaughan is also a figure of potential romantic interest, and indeed, Lin’s flaky attempts to meet his unattainable standards — culminating in what might be described as storm in a Swarovski glass — turns out to be the fizziest and most entertaining of the narrative’s scattered strands.

The larger problem is that Guo’s gift as a serial novelist don’t translate readily to the screen; what flows eloquently on the page sounds verbose and affected onscreen, at least in this incarnation. Various men gravitate toward the girls but not a single relationship takes off, and without a dominant storyline, the film feels more like a collage of photogenic moments than a full-fledged narrative.

It’s no coincidence that the magazine that becomes the protagonists’ focal point is called ME, epitomizing the self-absorption of China’s young generation while also advocating for self-expression and self-fulfillment. This empowering message is realized in the sensationally glitzy final act, when the four femmes try to pull off the year’s biggest fashion awards show in a burst of gung-ho spirit. Although it’s primarily an excuse for the film to climax in a sartorial orgy,  it does sound a euphoric note of female camaraderie.

Despite the bloated cast, hardly any scene gives rise to real ensemble acting. Though Yang and Kuo both look too old to be college girls, they possess the frivolous, sassy attitude ideal for this kind of cotton-candy entertainment. Except for Vaughan and Kai Ko Cheng-tung (“You Are the Apple of My Eye”), who generates some sparks with Kuo as Gu’s willful rich-kid b.f., the three other male roles, played by mainland thesps who eerily suggest Guo clones, are instantly forgettable.

Ultra-glossy production values will make audiences feel as if they’ve been trapped in a boutique or furniture showroom for two hours, but the aesthetic decisions are actually riddled with bad taste. D.p. Randy Che employs so many exaggerated camera movements and poor compositions that they make the dramatic buildup feel unnatural; Ku Hsiao-yun’s editing is all over the map; and Chris Hou’s schmaltzy music never takes a break, at times drowning out the characters’ conversations.

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