“Tiny Times” has been somewhat of a phenomenon over in China, originating as a trilogy of extremely popular novels from writer Guo Jingming, first published back in 2008 and following the experiences of a group of four female friends in Shanghai. Guo himself now brings the romance and drama of his books to the screen, serving as writer, director and narrator on the adaptations, perhaps marking the series as some kind of exercise in commercially minded auteurship. Despite a decidedly mixed reception from the critics and members of the public, the first instalment was a massive hit at the Chinese box office, which resulted in the release of its sequel being pushed forward to cash in on its considerable success.
The film revolves around four friends at university in Shanghai – supposed ‘ordinary girl’ Lin Xiao (Mini Yang, “The Bullet Vanishes”), the wealthy and business-minded Lily (Amber Kuo, “Au Revoir Taipei”), arty Nan Xiang (Haden Kuo, “In Case of Love”) and the wacky Ruby (Hsieh Yi Lin). The plot follows them as their lives change and develop, along with their friendship and their relationships with the various men in their lives, including Jian Xi (Li Yueming), Gu Yuan (Kai Ko, “Together”), and Xi Cheng (Jo Jiang). They all try to find their way in the fast-moving city, Lin Xiao somehow landing a job at the prestigious M.E. Magazine, where she runs into handsome boss Gong Ming (Rhydian Vaughan, “Monga”) and eccentric writer Chong Guang (Chen Xuedong).
It’s easy to see why “Tiny Times 1.0” (presumably thus-titled to sound more hip and modern) divided Chinese audiences, as it’s hard to recall a film which so openly celebrates and promotes materialism and the pursuit of financial fortunes, almost every scene dripping with fantastic opulence and flashy brand name goods. Whether this is distasteful or not depends on the disposition of the viewer, Guo Jingming quite clearly aiming both his books and films at a very specific demographic. This is wish fulfilment of an unrepentantly, almost viciously capitalist nature, the film spending its entire running time espousing the message that happiness can be achieved through monetary means. There’s no satire or irony here, and while some may look on appalled, there’s no denying that the film has found its mark with a very significant segment of Chinese moviegoers – though suggesting any semblance of depth would be out of the question, the film would definitely make for fascinating social studies material.
On a surface level, Guo takes an approach that mixes manga, Korean idol drama and Hollywood influences, the plot rushing breathlessly between hopes, dreams, relationship dramas, infidelities and the ups and downs of friendships. Without having read the novels it’s a little hard to say, but the way in which certain characters and sub plots drop in and out of the script hints that he was fairly economical when it came to picking and choosing what to include from his own source material. The film feels random at times as a result, and is frequently a bit baffling, though in a manner that, like its characters, is daftly entertaining.
As a first time director, Guo clearly has a lot of growing to do, as despite his bizarrely winning Best New Director at the 16th Shanghai International Film Festival, his helming is roughshod and inconsistent, the film’s tone being all over the place. However, this isn’t necessarily too bad a thing, and will likely be forgiven or overlooked by fans, and enjoyed by more cynical viewers, the film offering up plenty of soap opera trashiness and countless moments of inexplicable oddness. On the plus side, the pace is fast, and the film’s luxurious production values ensure that it’s one of the best looking prestige pictures to come from China in some time, which goes some way to marking it as an exquisite looking guilty pleasure – anyone looking for eye candy certainly won’t be disappointed, with the unfeasibly attractive cast all constantly decked out in only the finest garb.
Interestingly, although the film pitches itself as a kind of Chinese “Sex in the City”, the way Guo treats his female characters is anything but feminist or in line with notions of empowerment. Chiefly, this comes from the fact that although the foursome are ostensibly in control of their own destinies and desires, the ways in which they achieve anything still basically revolve around wealthy men helping or providing for them. If anything, this makes the film male as much as female fantasy, suggesting that men can attract and tame the most beautiful and apparently talented of women by being in a position to dazzle them with money – which again clearly represents Guo playing to his audience.
This aside, while fair to say that none of the female protagonists are particularly well-written or developed, thanks to amiable performances from the leads (Amber Kuo coming off best), all are at least likeable, or fun to laugh at. Guo does show somewhat of a clever touch here, building his characters through anecdotes and experiences that his following will recognise and relate to, each of the four leads clearly having been written as a certain type of symbolic social stereotype. Their relationships with their weirdly androgynous suitors are similarly lightweight (not least since the male characters are even less substantial, Rhydian Vaughan’s Gong Ming really standing out as some kind of borderline sociopath), and there’s not much emotional impact even as the film builds towards its conclusion, though the way things work out, despite being unsurprisingly left open for the sequel, is pleasant and inoffensive.
There are a variety of reasons to denounce “Tiny Times 1.0”, as it’s undeniably a hyper-materialistic and insubstantial piece of cinema that’s very much open to accusations of vacuousness. However, this seems entirely to have been part of Guo Jingming’s game-plan both as writer and director, and as such it’s perhaps wrong to castigate the film for being what it was always intended to be and for embracing the values it clearly cherishes. Though some viewers may understandably be turned off by its near-vulgar obsession with affluence, those looking for glossy, materialistic romantic drama, trashy amusement, or social commentary of the hysterical variety should find something to enjoy or fascinate.
Jinming Guo (director) / Jinming Guo (screenplay)
CAST: Mi Yang … Lin Xiao
Amber Kuo … Gu Li
Zhendong Ke … Gu Yuan
Rhydian Vaughan … Gong Ming