A run-of-the-mill student romance set in Beijing on the cusp of the millennium, the popular “Back in Time” reinforces how much the young demographic it targeted holds sway over China’s commercial market. Drawing a familiar arc of high schoolers falling hard in love, then drifting apart in college, mainland helmer Zhang Yibai knows how to reshuffle winning elements from other hits, but comes up short in terms of evoking anything vibrant, sensuous or heart-tugging. “Time” cruised past “The Crossing” to earn $90.7 million in 27 days, outperforming John Woo’s shipwreck epic almost threefold.
Ever since Vicky Zhao’s “So Young” used a two-part structure to paint a rosy picture of campus days in stark opposition to the cruel disappointments of adulthood, nearly every mainland youth romance, from Frant Gwo’s “The Old Classmate” to Snow Zou’s “But Always,” has glorified the innocence of puppy love and bemoaned adult life. “Back in Time,” adapted from a novel by Jiuyehui (real name: Wang Xiaodi), who co-wrote the screenplay with Li Han and Liu Han, brings nothing new to the perfunctory contrast between the protag’s debauched present and his squeaky-clean past.
Financial analyst Chen Xun (Eddie Peng, “Rise of the Legend,” “Unbeatable”) chats up elfin bleach blonde Qiqi (Liu Yase, “So Young”) at a rowdy club, and they have a one-night stand. The morning after, she asks him about his first love, and he makes a big deal about not having gone all the way. Qiqi, it turns out, is an artist hired by Chen’s high-school buddy Zhao Ye (Ryan, “So Young,” “Personal Tailor”) to shoot his wedding video. Her interviews with other alumni Qiao Ran (singer Wei Chen), Jiamo (Zhang Zixuan) and Su Kai (Chen He, nephew of Chen Kaige) become a framing device for shifts between present and past.
Back in 1999, Chen has just entered his first year of high school. The whole class is intrigued by Fang Hui (Ni Ni, “The Flowers of War”) the new girl who’s tight as a clam; only Chen succeeds in prying a few words out of her. Zhang’s evocation of teenage diffidence and inexperience, expressed through the protags’ furtive hints of love, are derivative of Giddens’ “You Are the Apple of My Eye.” Still, there are moments of sensuous charm reminiscent of the helmer’s more adult-oriented works, like “Lost Indulgence” and “Curiosity Killed the Cat.” When Chen makes Fang confess her feelings in the school matron’s clinic, of all places, it’s a magical moment that’s seesaws tantalizingly between desire and repression.
As long as it keeps up a light, mischievous touch, the film is pleasant enough, but as the young couple embark on campus life, the plot takes a more melodramatic turn. Mainland romances routinely deploy overseas study as the catalyst for a separation crisis; “Back in Time” breaks out of this mold by tracking how, despite having overcome so many odds to enroll at the same college, the pair grow apart once they start moving in different social circles. Fang’s character becomes unlikable as she nags Chen for attention, yet gives him the cold shoulder whenever he wants to get intimate. The appearance of Shen Xiaotang (Bi Xia) shakes up this irritating cycle, sporting dreadlocks and playing rock music (shorthand for “floozy” by this film’s standards).
Shen’s confident sexuality and strong come-on to Chen makes her a rare figure in commercial mainland cinema. However, any subtle emotional changes she stirs in Chen and Fang are subsumed by the characters’ obsession with virginity — peer pressure for Chen to lose it on the one hand, clashes with Fang’s insistence on “holding out” for a special occasion on the other. The result could have been a sensitive exploration of gender differences, if the film hadn’t obviously sided with Fang, through recurring scenes of Chen weepily expressing remorse, alternating with Fang’s self-punishing actions.
Another sign of the screenplay’s banality is its reliance on love triangles to generate conflict. Parallel to the main situation is Zhao Ye’s unflagging devotion to Jiamo, and her equally one-sided crush on Su, while Qiao wanders into and out of Fang’s life, carrying a hopeless torch for her. Their issues always escalate into a loutish brawl and conclude with tearful histrionics.
Even as the ending builds up to some revelation about Qiqi’s hidden identity and what Fang’s up to, it’s so vaguely implied that the emotional impact is minimal. Baby-faced Peng just about passes for a teenager, his youthful vibes enhanced by his beefy presence on the basketball court. Ni, probably the sultriest mainland actress of her age, is wasted in an artificial makeover that renders her plain and demure. To their credit, Peng and Ni inject genuine passion and heartache into their stormy relationship; the other actors look overage and can’t convey the kinship unique to lifelong friends.
Considering how Zhang’s work always boasts a polished sheen, the tech credits here rate as the shoddiest in his portfolio. Lenser Li Bingqiang heaps on the soft focus, slow-motion and revolving shots to pedestrian effect, while Kubert Leung’s choice of music resembles a looping ’90s karaoke playlist, and Dora Ng dresses Ni in the most unflattering colors and styles. Editing by Kong Jinglei and Qian Fang (“Blind Massage”) brings clarity to the temporal shifts but can’t redeem the screenplay’s inherently loose structure.
The Chinese title refers to a song sung by Faye Wang, which means “That Year Which Passed By So Quickly.”