HKAFF 2011: YOU ARE THE APPLE OF MY EYE Review

James Marsh, Asian Editor
For his directorial debut, prolific youth author Giddens Ko has adapted one of his own autobiographical novels, and in the process delivered a lewd, crude coming-of-age story that is also a moving and heartfelt romance. Set in 1990s Taiwan, YOU ARE THE APPLE OF MY EYE is the story of five young high school guys and the one girl with whom they are all desperately smitten.

There's a boy like Ko Teng (Ke Zhendong) in every class - tall, handsome and lazy as all hell. He sleeps through class and spends his free time hanging out with his friends. The other boys - Tsao, A-ho, Groin and Boner - flock around him, as do many of the girls, but truth be told he's thick as two short planks and is in serious danger of flunking right out of high school. One girl with absolutely no interest in Ko Teng is honor student Chia Yi (Michelle Chen). Smart, sensible and effortlessly attractive, Chia Yi is the most likely to succeed in their class, and if she does it will be because she's earned it. 

During a typical day's classroom shenanigans, Ko Teng and his buddy, Boner - so called because he suffers from, yup, an almost permanent erection, a condition milked for all its comedic potential, and then some - are caught taking part in a bout of competitive speed-wanking during class. In a desperate attempt to keep him in school but out of trouble, Ko Teng is moved next to Chia Yi, and she is saddled with the responsibility of monitoring his behaviour from now on.

Needless to say, what starts out as an almost painfully embarrassing exercise for both of them, eventually gives way to friendship, affection and the possibility of something more. By the time the summer comes around, Ko Teng and Chia Yi have become close enough that Chia Yi invites her friend Chia Wei (Wan Wan) along for the ride and the two girls spend their entire summer with the five boys, until the new term and university takes them all in separate directions.

For a first movie, YOU ARE THE APPLE OF MY EYE is really quite a remarkable achievement, slick, assured and almost effortlessly entertaining in a way that many seasoned veterans struggle to accomplish at all in their careers. Once seen, it comes as little surprise that the film has become such a runaway success in both Taiwan and Hong Kong, as Giddens has delivered a pitch-perfect teen drama that addresses comedy in the same enthusiastically puerile way teenagers do, while dealing with love and romance with equal authenticity - by which I mean it's painfully awkward and so often unfulfilling. 

However, many if not all of these elements were present in the source novel, for which Giddens has already received ample praise. Up on the screen, what we see is a breezy confidence and playful tone that keeps things moving along at a gratifyingly fast pace, but without feeling haphazard or overly episodic. The film is bright and colourful, interspersing touches of seamlessly applied CGI with a mist-eyed nostalgia that will play well with thirtysomethings, while retaining a pop-infused vibrancy that will ensure today's teens remain confident this is a film addressing them and their "unique" high school experience.  

If YOU ARE THE APPLE OF MY EYE does have a weakness, it is in the female characters and their comparative lack of depth compared to their male counterparts. Chia Yi and Chia Wei are pretty much the only female characters in the film and we never learn a great deal about them beyond what Ko Teng and the other boys learn. But this is, of course, the whole point. At the best of times, men can struggle to fully understand women, and back in those formative years, girls weren't the fairer sex so much as an alien species to be objectified, fawned over or occasionally picked on - quite often because deep down we really fancied them but didn't have the skills or the guts to do anything about it.

The reason the film works so well and should continue to resonate with audiences in other territories around the world in the same way as it has done in Taiwan and is doing here in Hong Kong is because Giddens hits home with universal truths about what it really means to be a teenage boy. The girls will delight in the opportunity to see the cute guys caught between the crosshairs and dissected for all to see, while the guys will simply relate to the unspoken embarrassment and vulnerability that comes with being an adolescent. Wherever you go in the world, boys have a propensity for toilet humour, a disregard for schoolwork and never quite have the balls to ask out the girls they like. Whether its comics, sports, video games or movies, all guys have their hobbies and the things that they're passionate about, but every man jack of them remembers the one girl they had a crippling crush on in high school, as well as the incessant, unrelenting masturbating. Giddens taps into our inner-wanker in the most sincere of ways and it proves to be the film's greatest strength.
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