(From L to R) Hayden Kuo, Yang Mi, Amber Kuo and Xie Yilin as high school students in the insufferable pile of dogshit known as Tiny Times 1.0.
I’ve been trying very hard to find a way to start this write-up with something clever, but so far, it hasn’t worked. Maybe it’s because I’m a shitty blogger who thinks he can write well, but in truth, he can’t. Maybe it’s because I haven’t read enough Leonard Maltin to truly consider myself to be a film critic, or that I don’t have enough of a mental toolset to be one. However, it might be this way because the movie I am about to review has done absolutely nothing to inspire my mind in any fashion to warrant it a decent article. For those of you who do read my reviews from this godforsaken blog, it’s obvious that I have a strong love for Asian film, especially if it’s the gems we find from the Chinese-speaking world, but lo and behold, there is something out there that we can simply classify as an abomination. This is not The Tuxedo, nor is it anything like Wudang. Hell, it isn’t even a Wong Jing movie, and Wong Jing usually SUCKS! BIG TIME! I’m sure that if I asked Wong Jing to take a big ol’ shit on a turtle shell, all the corn that we’d pick out from it would be much more worthwhile that whatever you’d pick out from this film. Therefore, if you ever have the inclination to watch Guo Jingming’s Tiny Times 1.0, then be warned, because for all I know, it’s a big, goddamned waste of MY time.
Tiny Times 1.0 is based on the popular young adult book series written by the ever polarizing Guo Jingming, a diminutive and expensively-dressed author who’s not only one of the richest young writers in the Mainland, but has the fucking temerity to direct his own fucking book into movie format, and let me tell you, this man is already raking in the big bucks. Despite widespread public polarization about its underlying themes (because you know, Chinese folk ain’t STUPID), Tiny Times 1.0 was a Chinese box office hit thanks in no small part to the author’s rabid book-toting fanbase (one that has overlooked his past incidences of plagirism to boot). Therefore, if the audience is there, why not bank on even more money with a goddamned movie, right? And what better person is there to direct the movie than the brains behind the books right? Good decision right?
Wrong goddammit. Wrong, wrong, WRONG, but we’ll get to that later.
Like the U.S., China is also experiencing the decline of popular culture / civilization due in part to the buying power of all of these young assholes who were born in the 90s who have no idea what class, humility and good taste are, but are ready to give anything to get everything thanks to them being brought up in spoiled homes while tasting instant gratification from the internet. And despite whether they’re rich kids looking for anything that’s branded with Gucci-Armani-Aldo, or American Libertarian Otaku who moan about everything from the size of Moe eyes to why poor folk don’t deserve welfare, the trend is the same across the page: I want it now, I say what I want now, and I don’t give a fuck about the consequences. Unfortunately for these chumps, what you want says a lot about who you are, and for all of you who’ve lovingly watched Tiny Times 1.0 like neutered buffaloes with venerial disease, you’re all morons. That’s not to say that 90s kids around the world are all like that. Hell, that’s far from it, but these chumps have put their money where their mouth is, and unfortunately, what we hear is what he learn from Guo Jingming.
Before I go out of hand again, let’s talk about the movie itself. By and large, the film is a simple coming of age story between four lady-friends who make the transition from high school to college, struggling to overcome personal obstacles to achieve their dreams while staying together as the best of friends. It’s a by the numbers plot line, but like all bad films, the devil is in the details, and the context surrounding the film’s plot, or lack thereof, is baffling. Lin Xiao, portrayed by that insufferable bitch named Yang Mi (who was in Wudang, FUCK!), is our heroine and narrator who is accompanied by her three best friends to attend university in a glamorous Shanghai. Her posse include the artsy Nan Xiang (Hayden Kuo), rich girl Gu Li (Amber Kuo) and the sporty-but-oh-so-stupid Tang Wanru (Xie Yilin). While Gu Li sticks to her lush apartment and can afford the luxury of being driven to school, her buddies have to settle for their dorm room, a spacious and fanciful behemoth that is definitely UNREAL by any University standard, let alone China’s (8 roommates anyone?). From here on out, we enter forbidden territory.
Now, our heroines have their ‘hurdles’, just like in any other film. For starters, Lin Xiao gets into Devil Wears Prada mode when she beats out some fierce competition to work in M.E. magazine, a fashion zine headed by the handsome-yet-eccentric Gong Ming. Gu Li is in the running to be a successful woman since she’s “apparently” running her own business (it’s not told what it is, but she’s wearing nice clothes and is super bossy and smart, so you figure right?), but her high school sweetheart’s mom ain’t none too pleased with that and wants her to figuratively piss off. Nan Xiang is the not so rich, but ethereal beauty of the bunch who paints all day and looks like she dreams of nothing but beauty and angel feathers in the air. Her only big trial aside from designing clothes for a fashion show later in the film involves some asshole she’s dating, one which Gu Li hates to high hell but is only known to us through yelling, tears and no actual exposition whatsoever. Yeah, you’re gonna see lots of these sudden knee-jerk moments that add no bearing to the overall structure of the film. And lastly, Wanru is our sporty, not-so-attractive heroine whose advances towards a tennis hunk always seems to fall short (and straight into plot hole hell). Portrayed as ugly, unfashionable and creepy, it’s as if Wanru was intentionally designed to be an awful character in order to ramp up the charm of her other three friends.
Now that we’ve established the overall structure of what we would expect from Tiny Times 1.0, it’s time we talk about why this film is so divisive. Though it’s nothing like what we’ve seen from the U.S. House of Representatives in the last few months, Tiny Times 1.0 divides opinion in China due to the fact that it uses the theme of female friendship as a frame to hold up a broad and superficial view of success through excess. To be fair, the U.S. has always been excellent in imposing its superficial worldview throughout the rest of the world thanks to the TV shows we crank out (Gossip Girl and the O.C. for starters) and the movies we produce. With this in mind, we can easily see that Guo Jingming’s books are a response to that as they illustrate a chic and fashionable lifestyle to all those who are ‘brave enough’ to endure the hardships of life to come out on top. In Tiny Times 1.0, we get the ‘added benefit’ of seeing that lifestyle in the big screen for us as Lin Xiao traverses through all the ‘trials and tribulations’ of being part of M.E. magazine’s fashionable status quo, where brand names and empty faces are tossed around with reckless abandon. A special emphasis is also placed on how all of this excess is filmed, where feathers and confetti always rain down during beautiful moments under the backdrop of a shimmering Shanghai, giving off that hazy air of “Yes, my dreams can come true here, once I get that job and roll into my bed of Benjamins.”
No one illustrates this idea more that the character of Gu Li. A smart and aggressive girl primed for big business and sporting the latest fashions, Gu Li is all about material excess. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Gu Li has an argument with her high school sweetheart where both of them are on the brink of a break-up. As her boyfriend speaks empty, possibly naive platitudes about how he’d give up his wealth for her (cuz he a rich bastard), she bites back by bleating out the most memorable line of the film, saying “Love without materialism is just a pile of sand.” Fast forward to New Year’s eve (or Christmas, I don’t know), and after some weird plot contrivances set our four heroines up for some love let-down, they all hit it to Gu Li’s luxury apartment to party, cry, let off some steam, try on clothes in her maze of a fashion closet and drink champagne like BFFs on the patio in a shimmering Shanghai with snow and glitter falling slowly from the sky. I guess by this point in the film, Gu Li is right. Who’d want sand to fall from the sky when you’re livin’ large like this with your girlfriends, right?
However, let’s not hit out on Gu Li alone. The whole world that surrounds are heroines in Tiny Times is excessively materialistic all on its own. Gong Ming, our head guy at M.E. magazine, sports some ridiculously expensive clothes as he tries to be the next Keanu Reeves. Lin Xiao, despite calling herself an “ordinary girl in Shanghai,” aspires to everything beyond that. Artsy Nan Xiang, despite being labeled as the demure-yet-poor beauty is found later in the film designing clothes for Lin Xiao’s fashion show and Wanru is…well, herself, hoping to be as stylish as her gal-pals but falling flat as her BFFs proceed to laugh at her. It’s as if Guo Jingming watched too much Gossip Girl and smashed a bunch of loosely related episodes into a film that shows nothing but glamor montages. Everyone is guilty of seeking the good life through material excess in Tiny Times, and although common belief tells us that doing so can strain close friendships in the long run, the BFF power coming out of Lin Xiao’s gang is immune to it. Frankly, that’s bullshit.
However, of all the things Tiny Times 1.0 gets wrong the most is how it fares as an actual film in relation to its structure and plot. Although Lin Xiao is our would be narrator, none of what she says ties any of the film’s loosely bound acts together, and whatever she does say is flowery bullshit spoken in Yang Mi’s stupid, cutesy voice that’s well known in pop culture to make most Chinese cringe (in which point the film even makes fun of that, but who gives a shit?). There’s also no flow or transition from one act to another, making the entire film a disjointed mess that highlights Guo Jingming’s intention to cram as much as he can into one whole film. In addition to all this cramming, many of these events or acts lack any sort of exposition or further exploration which makes the overall plot of the film a bit confusing unless you’ve read the books.
In addition to structural problems, the film itself offers no genuine strife for any of our heroines to endure for the sake of character development. One situation in particular occurs when Lin Xiao’s upcoming University fashion show for M.E. magazine goes up in flames thanks to some snow storm and the venue is completely trashed. She’s in tears obviously, but instead of rallying herself together to make something out of nothing or to reflect on her hubris by watching her whole world go up in flames, Gong Ming just waltzes on by and let’s her know that he’s got a Plan B already in place with another venue ready to roll. Problem solved? Fuck yeah! Her boss saves the day! You think this is a girl power film? FUCK NO! If anything, the film has some vaguely sexist undertones that highlight how women should be nothing more than jeweled queens who needn’t get ugly for anything. Let the men fight for them and let the men fight amongst themselves for them. I thought this was supposed to be a movie folks, not a soap opera.
Tiny Times 1.0′s failings as a film all stem from one element that I vaguely mentioned in the beginning of the review, and that element is Guo Jingming. Like George Lucas’ efforts in the first Star Wars trilogy, George actually had individuals who challenged his vision and helped him build some sort of coherence to all the ideas he had written into what would become a sci-fi classic. Furthermore, when he had a bad idea, and I mean a screwball straight-to-the-shitter BAD idea, I’m sure he was surrounded by folks who told him “NO GODDAMMIT, you’ll ruin the movie!” However, the unparalleled success he experienced had fattened his head when it came time to make his second Star Wars trilogy, and therefore, as we ALL can attest, what we witnessed there was utter crap. Guo Jingming has unfortunately followed suit here. Instead of challenging his own source material and providing his audience with a richer experience of his books on the big screen, Guo has decided to flagellate himself with his bright lights, designer brands and music video style camerawork with no one in the production crew daring enough to question his ideas, merits, taste and logic as a filmmaker. On the flipside however, who would?
Indeed, Tiny Times 1.0 deserved the heated and polarized debate that swiftly overtook China’s netizens over the summer, where critics vehemently panned its underlying themes while giving other sensible Chinese folks more reasons to face-palm themselves. Aside from its general failings as a film, Tiny Times 1.0 is a shallow exercise in material excess. Now, a review like this can easily fall into a critique of Chinese youth culture, but rest assured that this is not the case since these observations aren’t restricted to China alone. The U.S. and Europe have always prided themselves as vain trendsetters for the rest of the world, and in all honesty, there’s no shame in a Chinese film to actually indulge itself in that regard, thanks in no small part to China’s rise as an economic powerhouse. However, most Chinese today would probably tell you that there are far better ways to portray that in comparison to what Guo Jingming has done. Love without materialism is just a pile of sand in his case, but for Tiny Times 1.0, a shallow film without any structure is, to put it mildly, a pile of dogshit.