NOW SHOWING : FIRST TIME (Mandarin)
Directed by Han Yan
Starring Angelababy, Mark Chao, Cindy Yen, Jiang Shan, Zhao Shu-hai
Duration 104 minutes
ROMANCE movies no longer focus on the straightforward tale of passion and the lead characters’ quest for the proverbial “happily ever after”. These days, love stories come with much more elaborate side stories, drama and intrigues.
In Oxide Pang’s Basic Love for example, there is a deadly illness in the mix.
Directed by China’s Han Yan’s (The Tropic Of Cancer, Let It Go) First Time genuinely surprises with its fresh approach to a seemingly over-used idea and comes up with his version of a love story.
The story is about Shiqiao (Angelababy), a college student diagnosed with a terminal illness that affects her muscles. Her delicate condition makes her realise that she will probably never get to experience the fundamental things in life like falling in love, getting married and having children or living happily ever after.
In the midst of her despair, an old high school crush, Gong Ning (Mark Chao), appears at a fun fair with his band (for a concert), and Shiqiao is immediately swept away by an overwhelming feeling to meet Gong again.
Due to the side effects of her medication, she also suffers short-term memory loss. She immortalises every meeting and time spent with Gong by recording her memories in monologues on her cassette tapes.
Despite all the familiar scenes and almost predictable plot, First Time is different from the norm. The film is divided into two parts: In the first half, the audience is introduced to Shiqiao and Gong.
During the entire boy-meets-girl period, key characters such as Shiqiao’s overprotective mother (Jiang Shan), Gong Ning’s father (Zhao Shu-hai) and Gong’s rowdy bandmates are also introduced as well. Han adds humour and much realism into each of his characters — each one is unique and relatable with his or her own distinctive foibles.
First Time has its melodramatic moments. Audiences who are not big fans of the art house-style of directing — which targets a niche market and sets itself apart from mainstream romance flicks — may find the story a bit too slow in reaching its climatic end. But aside from cliched moments, Han doesn’t seem to be in a hurry. He takes time to slowly unveil his plots and show how his characters feel throughout.
He also manages to put the audience in the characters’ shoes. When Shiqiao realises she is dying, all she wants to do is to live life to the fullest, drawing much empathy from the viewers.
The love story between Shiqiao and Gong is a strong and ephemeral one, but this tragic tale has a twist at the end that may even coax a tear or two.
The cinematography also wins the movie some extra credit. Han favours the over-shot in some of his scenes but, at the same time, he paints a picture-perfect movie. Han also plays a lot with his surroundings to convey his messages.
In one scene, when Gong’s father is unable to accept his wife’s death in a road accident, he wallows in his sorrow by diverting traffic in his neighbourhood to honour her death. Han uses the rain brilliantly as a metaphor for his character’s sad disposition.
Angelababy, who plays Shiqiao, gives a wonderful performance. She proves that she has substance and is able to handle a serious role. Chao, on the other hand, works wonderfully in every role he is in. He first captured hearts as Mosquito in Doze Niu’s Monga. Here, he works his magic once again by giving another memorable performance .
It may be slow in narrative but First Time adds a fresh touch to the romance genre. You will not be disappointed. And it won’t be the last time you catch a Han Yan movie. Do not be in a hurry to leave once the credit starts rolling. Stay on to catch the “vital plots” of the movie.