HKAFF 2011: STARRY STARRY NIGHT Review

James Marsh, Asian Editor
Writer-director Tom Lin conjures up a visual feast in his sophomore effort, STARRY STARRY NIGHT, a big screen adaptation of Jimmy Liao's popular children's book. Young Josie Xu (familiar to many from Stephen Chow's CJ7) is maturing incredibly well as an acting talent of note and here pretty much carries the entire film with unflappable poise and a disarming charm that steers clear of being cutsy for the cameras. 

Xu plays Mei, an only-child, trapped in a financially stable, middle class family that is fracturing around her as her parents careen towards divorce. Luckily she has a doting grandfather (Kenneth Tsang, last seen in OVERHEARD 2), who fuels her already unwieldy imagination by carving her a menagerie of wooden animals that adorn her bedroom and populate her dreams. When grandpa falls ill, all seems lost for Mei - only for a new boy at school, Jay (Eric Lin) - to capture her attention, not least because he is an accomplished artist. Soon enough these two lonely souls find one another and, looking for a way to escape their real-world troubles, embark on a fantasy-fuelled journey to grandpa's isolated cottage in the far-off mountains.

Lin's great accomplishment here is balancing the real and the fantastical, with beautifully rendered CG-effects that whisk us away on adventures of childish innocence and imagination, while he also grounds the drama in a recognizable reality. Mei is forced to process the loss of a family member as well as the separation of her parents - the fighting, the drunken melancholia, the secrets and eventually the tough decisions over who she is to live with. Meanwhile, Jay struggles to fit in with the other boys at school and the skinny lad isn't up for the physical challenge of being bullied, despite having the pent-up aggression to lash out, stemming from his own disfunctional family life. 

With each other, however, Mei and Jay find peace and happiness. Mei is the dominant force, but Jay is only too happy to tag along and participate in her odyssey. STARRY STARRY NIGHT is as much about children coping with family issues as it is a coming-of-age story for its young protagonists. Mei and Jay are both 13 and there is a fierce hormonal undercurrent also at work here. This summer will not only bring heartache and adventure for these young adolescents, but also their first taste of love, and the young leads are never less than entirely convincing as the young lovers.

The film comes with a touching epilogue that at first feels unnecessary, but completely sells itself in the film's final moments. Kwan Lun Mei plays Mei many years in the future, but beyond that, nothing should be said about it save the fact that it punctuates the film perfectly and ensures audiences leave with a warm fuzzy feeling burning inside of them. Rene Liu and Harlem Yu provide solid support as the woefully depressed parents staring deep into the abyss of their marriage, but the heart and soul of this film belongs to its young stars and the creative talents who have transplanted their source material so wonderfully onscreen. STARRY STARRY NIGHT is a tender, heartfelt treat about the end of childhood and the loss of innocence and a flight of fancy well worth taking.
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