Legendary Taiwanese actress/writer/singer/producer/director Sylvia Chang is back with new film. After a rather long hiatus from directing (7 years without a feature), she once again resumes her role behind the camera to bring us a Taiwan-based drama. Nian Nian [Murmur of the Hearts] finally frees her from Hong Kong's strong pull and delivers everything you'd expect from a modern Taiwanese film. Maybe not quite up there with Taiwan's best, but a more than solid effort that should appeal to drama fans.
Sylvia Chang is somewhat of a local only celebrity. Even though she did enjoy modest international success with 20 30 40, she never really attained much name recognition over here. It's a bit of a mystery why that is really, because she more than deserves her place next to people like Ann Hui and Heiward Mak. From what I've seen of her work so far, Chang brings something unique to the table and Nian Nian only strengthens that impression.
At times the film reminded me a little of Naomi Kawase's Futatsume no Mado, though more in atmosphere than in style or themes. But those dreamy underwater moments and that typical island-feel could make for a compelling female Asian directors double bill. Taiwanese dramas are also closer related to Japanese dramas compared to their Hong Kong relatives, though the minor fantastical touches and slightly stronger focus on plot points betray the film's true origin.
Nian Nian follows the life of Mei, a young paintress who finds herself at a crossroad in life. When she finds out she is expecting her boyfriend's child, a devoted boxer in training, she fears the news might destroy their relationship. On top of that, a painful past that eventually separated her from her brother keeps haunting her memories. As she pushes forward the people surrounding her are trying to cope with their own personal issues, creating extra friction, further complicating Mei's life.
Visually the film is on par with recent Taiwanese outings, meaing it's stylish and perfectionist, combining a somewhat classic approach with more modern touches. Stark and beautiful framing, strong use of color and lighting and beautiful camera work give the film its basic flair, but it's scenes like the underwater swim/dance, shot from below, that make it extra special. The result is a stunning-looking film with lots of distinguished eye candy and quite a few memorable scenes.
The soundtrack has a very similar approach. Essentially it's not that different from other drama films, relying on moody and ethereal string and piano music to set the tone, but the sound is just that little bit different from the norm, making it less predictable and more importantly, less overbearingly sentimental. It's not a soundtrack that will blow you out of your chair or will surprise you with a novel twist, but it's a damn effective one that ads plenty to the film's atmosphere.
Chang did have a very nice casting surprise up her sleeve though. Seemingly from out of nowhere she revived Isabella Leong's acting career, giving her the lead role. Leong has been absent from cinema for the past 7 years and seeing her return to the screen is a more than welcome surprise. She finds herself in good company too, with Angelica Lee playing Mei's mom and Hsiao-chuan Chang taking on the role of Mei's boyfriend.
Nian Nian isn't entirely without fault. While the drama surrounding Mei's character is strong and immersive, the segments about Mei's boyfriend and her estranged brother are less intriguing and do break the flow of the film, if only just a little. A stronger focus on Mei's life and the flashbacks that expand on the time she spent with her mom would've made for a tighter whole, though this is only a minor issue which pops up just once or twice during the film.
After its big yet sudden peak in 2011, Taiwanese cinema seems to have subsided again. It's comforting to see films like Nian Nian continuing the good work of those that came before, because Taiwan has quite a few hidden gems and the more entry points there are, the likelier the chance someone will uncover them eventually. Nian Nian may not challenge the absolute best of modern Taiwanese cinema, but it's still a very solid film with some exceptional and memorable moments that deserves more praise than it is poised to get.