RAIFF 2012 | First Time

Posted by Alden E. Habacon & filed under Film Festival.

Esther Frid holds "El Atardecer de la Vida," a book she wrote about the stories of seven senior Latin American women living in Canada

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First Time


DIR: Han Yan | DCP | China/Hong Kong | 2012 | 106 mins | Mandarin with English subtitles


Tue., Nov 6th 7:00pm | Isabel Bader Theatre | Director in Attendance

Don’t let the title trick you—First Time includes all the details that build and sustain a relationship, rather than obsessively culminating into a sex scene (of which there is only an implication, but not the slightest confirmation). At first glance, the film appears to be any other doomed love story, but unexpected animated visuals (by Wing Shya and Sui Hak) along with a delicately balanced story-arc make this film a surprising delight.

This is Han Yan‘s fifth feature film, after being handpicked by producer (and former actor) Eric Tsang to direct the project. It’s rare to find a film about young love that doesn’t fall into the traps of formulaic romances, but First Time subtly achieves this by playing around with predictable plot-turns and maudlin love scenes, even when its scenes are shot in a rich palette of pastels.

Song Shiqiao (played by Angelababy) is a sickly college student whose illness prevents her from doing any kind of strenuous activity, including her dream of dancing ballet. The pills that she takes for her condition affect her memory so profoundly that she supplements it by dictating her thoughts into a tape recorder every night. She lives an uneventful life with her overprotective mother (Shan Jiang) until she encounters an old friend, Gong Ning (Mark Chao) while working at an amusement park. Gong is now a rock musician while Shiqiao quietly attends university, studying literature. As their friendship develops, they begin a slow-burning romance that tests the boundaries of her home-bound life, to the dismay of Shiqiao’s mother.

Lost to each other during high school, Gong and Shiqiao recount details of their briefly shared teenage years. Fat music teachers, songs, dances—the film features music prominently to bond the young lovers. The musical choices are surprisingly light—they accentuate certain emotions in a scene, but they don’t grandly sweep a viewer into empathy with the characters. Faded musical choices aside, First Time manages to survive its own earnestness (and corny jokes) because of its complex storyline. I can’t think of another film about young love where a male lead can ask candid questions like, “How can I be exactly the person you remembered?” without the audience recoiling from sweetness overkill.


To North American audiences familiar with romances like A Walk to Remember or even classics like Love Story, the plot may seem cliché. When we see two young people meet on screen, we expect them to fall in love, have several stupid fights over misunderstandings, and to eventually get back together again through some ridiculous scheme. Unlike those other movies, however, the underlying concerns of First Time are not limited to portraying romantic fantasy or providing commentary on social class.

The film deals with questions of memory as tightly as it deals with the theme of love—how we choose to remember loved ones is as important as who we love and why. Yan’s understated direction suggests that the state of memory is a naturally perforated one; low-angle shots of sunlit tree branches, or close-ups of sneakers through bicycle spokes punctuate the screen, reminding the viewer of the gaps in individual memory, and the necessity of collective recollection.

Phuong Nguyen writes from Toronto, ON, where she received an MA in English Literature, qualifying her to write this bio.



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