“First Time” is a Chinese youth romance offering and a remake of the 2003 Korean film “…ing”, helmed by Han Yan, whose part of the 2008 collection “Winds of September” ended up being refused release by the Chinese censors. The director is definitely on much safer ground here, teaming with noted producer William Kong (“Secret”, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) and popular young stars actress model Angelababy (“Love in Space”) and Taiwanese actor Mark Chao (“LOVE”). The great-looking and surprisingly complicated film also has an eclectic supporting cast, including Jiang Shan, Tian Yuan (“Butterfly”) and Bai Baihe (“Love is Not Blind”), with American-Taiwanese singer and songwriter Cindy Yen making her big screen debut, and Mark Chao’s own real-life father, Allen Chao putting in an appearance.
The film has a cassette tape style structure, Side A beginning by following Angelababy as Shiqiao, a college student with a terminal disease that means she can’t do anything too strenuous. Raised and looked after by her mother (Jiang Shan), Shiqiao leads a quiet and lonely life, recording her thoughts by night on tape, until at an amusement park one day she runs into former childhood classmate and crush Gong Ning (Mark Chao), now a rock musician. The two quickly become close and begin a relationship, Gong Ning inspiring her to make more out of life and to start dancing, despite the risks. However, as things progress, the film shifts to Side B, telling a very different side to the story.
As should be pretty obvious from the above, “First Time” is first and foremost a film specifically for fans of the youth romance genre, and one which never makes any attempt to hide its ambitions. On this score, during the opening Side A act, even for devotees, suspension of disbelief is an absolute must, director Han Yan seemingly trying to tick every box possible, almost going over the top in a quest for cuteness and open hearted sweetness, keeping the whole terminal disease subplot on hand for an added dash of looming weepy melodrama. Everything plays out exactly according to plan, and though both Angelababy and Mark Chao are perfectly likeable, the realism of their burgeoning love is undermined by the fact that the script gives them little to do apart from acting childishly coy and like a daft puppy dog respectively. This is all reasonably fun, though it’s fair to say that for many viewers it will probably be more than a little too much.
Thankfully, and quite surprisingly, things undergo a dramatic shift with the beginning of Side B, the cassette symbolism working well in addition to adding a slightly charming retro feel. Although the plot twist itself is not necessarily particularly believable, it’s nevertheless a good and highly effective one, turning the film neatly on its head, not to mention making the second act far more interesting and even a little cynical. Things get markedly more engaging from this point onwards, the characters being fleshed out beyond their early silliness, and there’s a pleasing and unexpected depth to the way things develop. Of course, Han Yan can’t resist throwing in a good few more revelations towards the end, several of which are coincidental enough to stretch the credulity nearly to breaking point, though this doesn’t stop the film from building to a moving and genuinely emotional climax.
It definitely helps that the film looks absolutely gorgeous throughout, with excellent production values and tender use of light and colour. Although some of the set details are a little obvious, for example the way that most rooms seem to be filled with vaguely eccentric clutter and lit by strings of fairy lights, the film is atmospheric and easy on the eyes, with a suitably dreamy feel. Han Yan also manages to keep things moving at a respectable pace, and the film wins marks for never getting caught up too much in needless subplots or pointless cheap shot montages.
Though none of this is likely to make “First Time” terribly enjoyable for viewers not enamoured of the youth romance genre, for the fans it is undoubtedly one of the more accomplished and well put together examples of the form from China of late. Han Yan does a solid job as director, with both Angelababy and Mark Chao on appealing form, and the film has an overall air of quality, benefitting considerably from a neatly thought out script.
Han Yan (director)
CAST: Angelababy … Song Shiqiao
Mark Chao … Gong Ning / Lu Xia
Xuan Huang … Li Rao
Yuan Tian … Gu Qi