Enduring emotional ordeals that sometimes seem as grueling as the Long March, the teenage protags in the mainland Chinese youth meller “The Left Ear” lose everything — parents, lovers, money, virginity, and even their hearing. Thanks to the vitality of a daisy-fresh cast and the sensitive touch of Taiwanese idol-turned-helmer Alec Su (“The Message,” “Sweet Alibis”), they survive a florid plot to emerge as full-fledged characters. Brimming with sincerity and less trashy than many of its counterparts, the pic opened at home with a resounding $8 million-plus and has gone on to earn more than $65.2 million in 10 days; it could well speak to young auds in other Chinese-language territories.
“The Left Ear” reps the first screen adaptation of a trilogy by Rao Xueman, the mainland maven of youth literature credited with popularizing a genre that dwells on damaged psyches and the acute pain of growing up. This is nothing new to readers of Japanese shojo manga, but for Chinese teenagers under constant academic pressure and parental scrutiny, the film’s call to take risks understandably resonates; hence its most quoted line: “If you date the wrong guy, just blame it on the folly of youth.”
After trying out 26 scribes, Rao ended up penning the screenplay herself, dropping two significant love interests from the story and playing down the amorous musical chairs in the process; the result, while still overwrought, feels more substantial and positive-minded than vain, escapist fare like Guo Jingming’s “Tiny Times.” And Su — a former member of Taiwan’s first-ever boy band, Little Tigers, and star of the record-breaking TV drama “My Fair Princess” (1997) — brings a particularly Taiwanese sensibility to the love scenes, culled from his long stint in drama series adapted from the work of pulp romance queen Chiong Yao.
Setting out from a stifling small town in the southern coastal city of Xiamen, the story moves between campuses in Beijing and Shanghai, depicting manifold adversities and changes of heart before a protracted coda. Collectively, the plotlines and relationships yield more criss-crossings than a railway station, in a screenplay with enough material to spawn a few sequels.
Like the novel, the film is narrated in the first person by Li Er, or Little Ear (Chen Duling), a partially deaf 17-year-old girl. She dreams of having someone whisper sweet nothings into her impaired left ear because it’ll “go straight to the heart.” Bearing out Rao’s painstaking plot calculations, her disability seems inconsequential to her daily life, until a crucial turning point when it comes shatteringly to the fore.
In 2005, Little Ear nurses a crush on classmate Xu Yi (Yang Yang), who’s handsome, city-bred, wealthy, an ace basketball player and a straight-A student — in short, so perfect he could only exist in girlish fantasies. Naturally, he pays her as much attention as he would a buzzing fly. After all, what pubescent boy wouldn’t prefer bootylicious bar waitress Bala (Ma Sichun), especially when she comes on to him so saucily? Driven to distraction, Xu neglects his homework — an act so unfilial that what befalls his family can only be interpreted as Heaven’s wrath.
Sadly, Xu and Bala are only pawns in a game devised by Zhang Yang (singer Ou Hao, “Temporary Family”), a bad-boy type who lures Bala away after slam-dunking Xu off the court. Nothing can curb her infatuation — not Zhang’s offhand violence or even Jiang Jiao (Guan Xiaotong), his spoiled g.f. In these kids’ twisted, neurotic universe, rejection only makes them pine harder for love.
The film succeeds in not only immersing us in the intricate fabric of its characters’ lives, but in making us care about every one of them, rooting every instance of growth or fall from grace in well-founded social or psychological motives. Little Ear’s steadfast loyalty, which expresses itself in transformative ways as she matures, culminates in an especially moving reconciliation.
Though the actors are still pretty green, they give heartfelt performances, especially Ma, who exudes a rebellious sexuality while retaining a childish playfulness. Chen is sometimes overwhelmed by the weight of her role but gets by mostly on her pure, waiflike demeanor. Yang and Ou have exquisite bishonen (pretty-boy) looks, but falter in their more emotionally fraught scenes.
Craft contributions benefit from the production experience and offbeat style of Taiwanese executive director Lien Yi-chi (helmer of “Makeup” and “Sweet Alibis”). Under Chan Chi-wai and Guo Xuanyu’s tight editing, the pacing never feels rushed or choppy, yet the narrative seldom runs out of steam. Master lenser Zhao Fei (“Let the Bullets Fly,” Raise the Red Lantern”) employs a warm, rosy palette to give every scene an intimate feel. While shots of Xiamen’s coastline and rooftops are abashedly romantic, the interiors look conspicuously like constructed sets, their artificiality magnified by over-crafted, non-ambient lighting.