I’m not quite sure when I decided to turn this blog into media/cultural commentary, but the inspiration’s been striking me recently so I might as well go with it. I went to see the new Taiwanese romantic comedy “那些年， 我们一起追的女孩” with a friend this weekend. The title literally translates to something like “The Girl We All Pursued All Those Years,” which, admittedly, doesn’t translate well. However, I think it’s a far sight better than “You Are the Apple of My Eye,” the bland English title they decided to go with instead. The movie was already out in Hong Kong when I was there for a Teach For China trip in October, and has only recently made it to the Mainland–as I discovered recently, the version I saw here had already been thoroughly scrubbed of the racy bits.
Censorship-induced indignation aside, the movie is quite funny, and, in my opinion, raises some really interesting questions about contemporary views of romance, relationships, and innocence among young Chinese. I’m going to attempt to breeze through crucial plot elements as quickly as possible to get to the interesting part.
The central story, of high school first love–is an archetype in the popular Chinese youth imagination that a friend (博哥, for loyal readers) emailed me in a tizzy at how simply streaming the trailer from the US made him overflow with nostalgia for his lost youth. The movie follows Ke Jingteng 柯景腾 (called “Keteng), his gang of high school chums, and Shen Jiayi 沈佳宜 the pretty, studious girl that they all simultaneously have crushes on. Near the beginning of the movie, Jiayi forgets her textbook in class and Keteng, a notoriously terrible student, takes the rap for her, stoically accepting her punishment. Their friendship blossoms from this act of chivalry, with Jiayi diligently tutoring Keteng in an attempt to overcome his lack of interest in school. Jiayi spends all of high school thwarting would-be male suitors, and though Keteng is the last of his friends to declare his love for her, on their graduation day, she is unresponsive to him as well.
When the friends graduate high school and go off to separate colleges, Keteng and Jiayi remain close friends, but romantically never make it beyond one awkward date, which of course begins with him asking her if it’s a date. As the two of them walk balancing along a railroad track, their pseudo-romantic history hangs heavy in the air. “I’m afraid for you to date me,” Jiayi says, “because I’m afraid that I couldn’t live up to the girl in your imagination. I make mistakes sometimes, I have bad breath in the morning and I bicker with my sister. I’m quite ordinary.” Later that afternoon, when the topic of their courtship comes up again, Keteng declares, “Well I never officially asked you out.” Jiayi replies, “would you like to know my answer if you did?” “Don’t tell me,” Keteng retorts, “I haven’t asked you, so you can’t reject me yet.”
Keteng’s immaturity is a consistent theme of the movie, beginning with his poor
grades and frequent disciplinary problems in high school. Emotional frustration spurs him to act out–in a rather unexpected plot twist, he organizes a Fight Club-esque boxing competition in the basement of his college dorm, and when Jiayi catches wind, she is furious with him. They fight, and as he storms off, she calls him 幼稚, “childish,” her chosen flirtatious insult for him while in high school, now a serious judgement of character. After the fight, they don’t speak for two years. They are seniors in college when a big earthquake hits Taibei, where Jiayi is studying. Keteng calls her frantic with worry and, when he finds that she is safe, the conversation turns to their romantic past. He casually asks why they never ended up together, to which she responds, “The most beautiful part of a relationship is the very beginning. Once you’re really together, a lot of the real feeling disappears. So I thought, why not let you chase me a little longer?” They fall back out of touch again, but Keteng seems to have finally overcome some of his 幼稚-ness. He starts working on a novel (granted, not always the most mature of career choices), applying himself for the first time in his life. The next time he hears from Jiayi, though, it is to tell him that she is getting married to someone else. In the last scene, he flashes through their relationship, imagining that if he had overcome his immaturity earlier, he could have made up during their big fight and they might actually have been together. In the end, though, all he can do is wish her well in her new life.
I would argue that the crux of the movie can be summed up in Jiayi’s statement–that the most beautiful part of a relationship is the very beginning, before you get to know a person and learn that they’re not as perfect as you would imagine. The first half of the movie hovers in this phase, packed to the brim with adorable high school-crush cliches. However, as the protagonists grow older, neither is willing to part with this idealized vision. Keteng refuses to risk outright rejection, and Jiayi is too scared to expose her own personal flaws to him. This is where I would argue the movie diverges from the majority of American romantic comedies. In an American romcom, the protagonists would confront one another’s flaws and learn how to love one another, warts and all. In this movie, the protagonists learn from their mistakes too late. As such, their relationship remains in the realm of Chinese high-school folklore, a pure archetype unsullied by the unpleasant details of a real adult relationship.
I’ve written in this blog before about some of the ways in which notions of relationships here can vary greatly from in the US. In my conversations with friends here I’ve become aware of a very different hierarchy of value with respect to different stages of a relationship. A lot of weight is often placed on the courtship phase–in the archetype at least, the boy becomes a close friend as he pursues the girl before finally biaobai 表白-ing, or dramatically expressing his love. Many people disagree with the American notion that one should date, and cross several bases, before feeling certain about one’s emotions. I found the movie fascinating because it deals with, and to some degree challenges, these notions. At the very least it draws a clear link between these romantic ideals and emotional maturity more generally.