Film: You Are The Apple of My Eye (那些年，我們一起追的女孩)
Director: Giddens Ko
Starring: Ko Chen-tung, Michelle Chen
Warning: spoilers ahead.
Love is a strange concept to me. Of all the feelings the human heart is capable of feeling, of expressing, it’s the one I understand the least. Who can define love? Who can truly say what it is? To attempt to define it by its biological trappings is horribly reductive at best, and at worst fundamentally dehumanising in its brutal practicality and sterility; yet to wax poetic about it is to risk finding oneself caught somewhere between the terribly cynical Sturm und Drang melodrama of the literary Romantics, and the excessively saccharine, pop-music-infused clichés of the Hallmark romantics.
Those with a certain amount of wisdom tell me, ‘don’t worry about what it is, you’ll just know it when you feel it’ – and indeed, I’ve got to admit that I definitely admire their dedication to a particular phenomenology of love, one which holds the qualia over the qualification (something sorely missing from modern living, to be perfectly fair – but an entirely different topic for another day). But even that doesn’t really feel enough – because how often have I, seized by a sudden, terrible longing for a girl, looked at the sky and wondered, ‘is this really love?’, all the while waiting for the moment when that feeling just comes, that brief of clarity and self-actualisation, only to be disappointed over and over again.
Yeah, it’s definitely not enough. But they’re definitely on to something, though. And watching novelist-turned-filmmaker Gidden Ko’s quasi-autobiographical You Are the Apple of My Eye, I knew the instant the credits rolled that I had just experienced a glimpse of that something.
You Are the Apple of My Eye is, to its core, a story about love. Boy meets girl, they fall in love, then life gets in the way. It’s a story you already know, and probably quite well; plot-wise, it’s about as standard fare as you can get, and so far as romantic comedies go, offers absolutely nothing new to the genre. In this case, the year is 1994; the boy is the wayward and ‘childish’ (this becomes a repeated defining trait which the other characters discuss in varying contexts throughout the film) troublemaker Ko Ching-teng (Ko Chen-tung); the girl is the pretty and studious Shen Chia-yi (Michelle Chen); and they fall in love in the final year of high school, portrayed somewhat realistically as an institution built around discipline (at least theoretically), competition and order.
After a hilarious incident where Ching-teng is caught masturbating in class (filmed as an odd but very funny musical montage like an onanistic interpretation of something out of Scott Pilgrim), he is reseated in front of Chia-yi, who is assigned by the principal to watch over him. One day, she forgets her English textbook, and the teacher (who is inexplicably and unusually irritable that day, and since this is also the Eastern Asian education system) is about to publicly humiliate anyone who doesn’t have their textbook; but Ching-teng, feeling uncharacteristically caring (up until this point, he’s basically shown only messing around in class, messing with his friends and doing borderline socially-unacceptable things in his house), slips her his textbook instead and takes the punishment in her place, being forced to do squat jumps outside the classroom with his chair raised above his head, while inside the class recites the entirety of Martin Luther King Jr’s iconic ‘I have a dream’ speech in English.
This gesture of kindness inexplicably leads Chia-yi to suddenly designate herself as Ching-teng’s private tutor, going out of her way to create handwritten tests and highlight relevant information in textbooks for the academically-struggling Ching-teng. This part of the film was most problematic for me in terms of just how sudden it comes on; I’m not so much against inexplicable attractions as I am against the fact that one moment, she’s dismissive and condescending towards him, and in almost literally the next scene, she’s offering to essentially serve as an academic guardian angel for him. Later scenes in the film offer intimations of a bit of more perspective from her end, but even with those, the pacing in this part comes off as rather forced and artificial. The initial impetus of attraction is far too arbitrary, although it’s also entirely possible that the gesture of him taking the metaphoric bullet for her (and particularly since, as demonstrated by a later scene, she seems very susceptible to cultural notions of shame as a means of discipline) has greater cultural significance which didn’t translate successfully, and that I simply missed out on it due to that cultural divide. Ultimately, however, I’m willing to extend a bit of artistic license to Ko; regardless of the plausibility of the scene, the attraction is almost immediately apparent, and what ensues afterwards is so well done that I can forgive a bit of forced storytelling.
Of course, the two fall in love. Through a number of scenes showing them working together on homework in late-night cram schools, and a musical montage of her encouraging him to study harder, him being frustrated, and them having fun doing school stuff together, their relationship grows, and things seem to be going well for both of them. What makes these sequences work so well (and really, this applies to the entire film in general) is just how well Chen and Chen-tung work together. Despite the limited emotional palates of their characters, they explore the full extents of their available ranges with surprising amounts of depth: subtle facial twitches betray hidden feelings, natural trembles and pitches in their voices hint at intense longings, rapid flashes and aversions of eyes suggest messages sent and received but not acknowledged. The two complement each other perfectly, and their attraction feels authentic and genuine, despite the sometimes contrived and formulaic nature of their actions; during the period when they fall in love, the last final days of high school right before they leave one another for university, they are at their most natural, and here is where many of the film’s best moments are: found in the carefree, happy days where Ching-teng (back in character now) is falling for Chia-yi, and her for him.
Their love manifests in everything they do: in the way Ching-teng, studying late into the night for Chia-yi, is disrupted by his mother, who surprises him with fast food along with his usual porridge; in the way Chia-yi’s pen jabs into an exhausted Ching-teng’s back, at first cautious, become more playful and flirtatious; in the way Ching-teng, completely nude and standing on his balcony at 2 in the morning, screams passages from his English textbook so loud that his neighbour comes out and yells at him, to the point where eventually both learn English (or at the very least, ‘I fuck you’); in the way Chia-yi, seeing Ching-teng standing up to a particularly overbearing school security officer, uncharacteristically jumps to defend her crush (and subsequently is punished by being forced to hold a squat in public, along with Ching-teng and his friends). It’s truly touching, and almost kind of heartbreaking in a way, to watch them
Of course, however, as it usually tends to do, life eventually gets in the way. The friend group dissolves as they all graduate and go their separate ways (but not before an incredibly touching graduation trip to the beach which serves as the promotional content for the film’s poster, where each of them takes time to reminisce upon the time they had together, and what they would like to do in the future), and so too do the lovers.
Separated by college, the two attempt to maintain their relationship (and actually manage to succeed surprisingly well, given how terrible most long-distance relationships tend to go), with Ching-teng calling Chia-yi every night, his voice and heart haunted by the same coy, jealous and naive affection that tantalises and paralyses the hearts of every love-stricken boy with nothing to lose but too scared to try.
As the winter holiday approaches, they go on their first unofficial ‘date’, portrayed lovingly through a series of montage shots showing them having fun together, and genuinely enjoying each other’s company. This eventually culminates in what I personally consider to be the turning point of the film, and one of the most heartbreaking scenes I’ve ever seen in any film.
Some time at the end of their ‘date’, Ching-teng and Chia-yi participate in the lighting of a sky lantern. For those unfamiliar with this practice, the lighting of sky lanterns is a typically Chinese festival tradition in which people write their wishes upon the lantern, and then release them into the sky as a token of good fortune, and as a symbolic process of sending one’s deepest desires and wishes upwards to be blessed by divine forces. The lantern itself in this scene serves a greater symbolic purpose as well, physically separating the two would-be lovers both literally, in a spatial and cinematic sense, but also emotionally, allowing them to protect themselves from directly having to confront one another as they talk about their true feelings for one another, and what they want to do about them. Ching-teng, in a burst of what is for both him and us uncharacteristically cathartic honesty, tells Chia-yi that he genuinely loves her, and promises that one day, he will finally win her over. His uncertainty is apparent in the way his voice wavers, and how his brow furrows in intense yet distant concentration, trying to summon the courage to give voice to the feelings he has felt all along, but could never say out loud. His confession is heightened by the camera, intimately close, jumping between the two, complementing his determined hesitancy with her delight at having finally heard the words she always wanted to hear him say, her eyes warm and flickering. She tells him, a barely concealed smile pulling at her lips, that she can tell him the answer to his heart’s question now, and for a moment, there is a sense of hope that feels genuine and heartfelt.
In any other film, Ching-teng would’ve almost immediately said yes, Chia-yi would say yes, they would both let the lantern go, the camera would spin around them and draw up towards their eyes as they, filled with happy tears, realise their love for one another and embrace as the lantern floats up into the pale evening sky. But You Are the Apple of My Eye is not just any other film, and where it succeeds over all others is most apparent in this scene: instead of saying yes, Ching-teng hesitates for a long moment, his face twisted in genuine deliberation, and at last, he finally manages to utter out a single ‘no’. The camera doesn’t drop, the music doesn’t swell, and in fact, all that happens is that we see Chia-yi, her face dropping, her eyes nearly on the verge of tears, as the brief hope she held for just a moment palpably evaporates before her. As Ching-teng continues, telling her that, if he ‘doesn’t ask [her], she can’t turn [him] down’, and that he just wants her to ‘let [him] continue liking [her]’, the pain, difficulty and disappointment within and created by those words feels incredibly real, and cut both the lovers and us deeply. With Ching-teng’s refusal, the camera draws back to frame both of them, physically separated by the lantern but now also emotionally separated by Ching-teng’s cowardice, and they release the lantern, symbolising both them letting go of their wishes, and, in a twist of bitter irony, having come so close to fulfilling them but in the end, never being able to. This moment hits particularly hard in context to a scene which is shown briefly at the end of the film, revealing that in fact, Chia-yi had written her response to his wish to be with her on her side of the lantern – ‘OK, let’s be together’.
What strikes me so deeply about this film, but particularly this scene, is just how realistic it is in terms of how it treats the subject of love. Too often, romantic films find themselves encaged either within the prisons of cliché, or ‘realism’ which is in most cases only realistic in one particular way: either they are unrealistic altogether, or are realistic only in their willingness to explore the mundane and the uninteresting aspects of relationships. Rarely however are romantic films ever so realistic, and honest about the actual core feelings at the hearts of their films: when a romance fails, it is most often due to some external factor, such as fate, or circumstance, or a fundamental difference in personalities which was often clear to begin with. Rarely do they depict relationships in which it is the failure of the characters themselves, and the ways in which negotiate (or rather, fail to negotiate) the complex and often non-Euclidean topographies of human relationships, that lead to the failure of the relationship. While this is difficult to illustrate without any concrete examples, what makes You Are the Apple of My Eye stand out to me so distinctly is just how honest it is about how people really deal with their emotions: Ching-teng and Chia-yi are both cowards, in their own senses, and for their constant hesitancy, fear and ultimately just plain stubbornness, they lose something which both deeply desired, which was beautiful and fulfilling to both of them. Too often, fictions depict these kinds of weaknesses in too literal of a sense, relying on tropes and narrative clichés to communicate character flaws and deficiencies. They come off feeling artificial and forced; however, Ching-teng and Chia-yi both act in incredibly natural, and understandable manners, and their weaknesses are not artificial handicaps placed on their characters in order to create the potential for dramatic impact, but rather, feel like very genuine and relatable character traits which many can identify with. The film’s power lies in its exploration of things left undone and things left unsaid, and succeeds tremendously at capturing a liminal space where few other films in this genre even really are aware of.
As for the rest of the film, I’m choosing to intentionally leave it unspoiled, since I feel that this is where a large portion of the film’s emotional crux lies, and I’m unable to capture properly with words just how well-done it all is. Several scenes from the second half are some of my favourite scenes in any film (the earthquake scene, in which the above screenshot comes from, and the final scene in particular come to mind), and the ending, while admittedly is a bit melodramatic in the way that many Asian films tend to be melodramatic, strikes especially hard. Some people have complained about the ending being too satisfying, and while I can understand where they’re coming from, I disagree with them fundamentally in the sense that I think the ending is perfect for what the rest of the tone is trying to convey: without spoiling anything, it’s a perfect bittersweet summation of Ching-teng’s and Chia-yi’s characters and relationship, and while it left me feeling absolutely cored and hollowed out inside, I couldn’t have envisioned a more ideal way to end the film.
(As a final note, while some reviews have complained that much of the initial humour of the first half is lost and displaced by melodrama, I don’t feel that this is a fair complaint: in one sense, from a narrative purpose, the second half focuses much more on the collapse of the relationship between Ching-teng and Chia-yi, and is consequently more somber and introspective in tone. In another sense, the gradual shift in tone makes sense from a more metanarrative thematic aspect: as the characters grow up and mature, so too do the film’s focuses; at the beginning of the film, the characters are high-schoolers who do little but mess around with one another all day, and the film’s light-hearted, juvenile humour reflects that. But as they grow older and learn to take on responsibilities, and how to deal with the more complex heartbreaks and joys growing older brings, the characters become more wistful and nostalgic, and time passes much more quickly for them (both in terms of how events are presented to us as viewers, and how Ching-teng’s narration begins to shift to focus more on long-term consequences rather than short-term motivations). All in all, I found the transition to be very smooth and not what some have described as ’emotional whiplash’ at all.)
What I found particularly interesting about the relationship which serves as the central focus of the film is just how little physicality takes place, especially compared to American romantic comedies. Ching-teng’s and Chia-yi’s affections – what Birth. Movies. Death. calls a ‘very chaste, homework-based romance’ – are unique in that not only are they a reflection of the far less sexually-active school-work mentalities found in east Asian culture, they are even more telling of the characters themselves. You Are the Apple of My Eye, a film rife with penis, masturbation and porn jokes (and even fairly explicit, at least for Taiwanese cinema, depictions of homosexual activity), certainly does not shy away from sexual themes, and its characters – Ching-teng’s friends especially, who bear nicknames such as ‘Groin’ and ‘Boner’ – are certainly not the typically sexually pure or virginal characters of most east Asian romances. That the film clearly has no problem depicting sexual behaviour (and what in Taiwanese culture would be considered even in some occasions borderline deviant) yet still avoids framing the central romance within virtually any physical context (Ching-teng and Chia-yi don’t even hold hands) reflects a certain understanding of sexuality which is much different from how it’s traditionally portrayed in Western romantic cinema.
The majority of sexual behaviour takes place at the beginning of the film, when Ching-teng is still in high school and subject to the throes of male adolescent vulgarity, with some later trickles of it when he goes to college later on (and somehow ends up in a small, dark and dank room with three other chronic masturbators). However, by the second half of the film, where the tone noticeably becomes more sombre and introspective, almost all references to sexuality have all but disappeared, with much of the emphasis being on Ching-teng’s emotional desires for a relationship rather than his physical desires for a sexual partner. It’s particularly notable that Ching-teng and his friends, when they first meet Chia-yi, are attracted to her only because she is the prettiest girl in the class (in fact, that is how she is introduced to us, the audience); as his relationship with her grows, however, he becomes more and more attracted to her for what she represents in his life, which is a source of comfort, stability and kindness.
You Are the Apple of My Eye is a heartbreakingly honest film, but never does it make the easy mistake of confusing realism for cynicism, as many other films often do. Instead, it comes off as nothing but genuine and heartfelt, and succeeds at maintaining this rare sense of sincerity all throughout despite the shifting tone of its plot. It ‘s a film that’s honest to itself and its audience, which treats its genre and influences with respect while simultaneously not being afraid to step outside the expectations and limitations of either in order to create something of its own. Through a combination of consistently excellent acting, gorgeous cinematography and an incredibly moving and appropriate soundtrack, it succeeds on nearly every level, and accomplishes everything which it set out to accomplish, to a stunning degree.
It’s a film about real life that does treats real life with neither the naive optimism nor bitter cynicism which have become entrenched traditions within its genre: but rather, recognises it as something inherently paradoxical in its complexity, both mind-bogglingly Byzantine yet also at the same time disarmingly simple.
It’s a film about growing up while also trying to hold on to the past, about letting in just enough nostalgia so that you can look back and smile without being insincere.
It’s a film about love that, sure, is also a film about people falling in love, and people being in love, and people learning how to love; but more than any of those, it’s a film about love itself, and what it means to love another.
But most of all, it’s a film about sincerity, and what it means to genuinely feel something – whether that be love, or heartbreak, or nostalgia, or acceptance.
It’s a film that shows us that it’s okay to love someone, to fail, to have our hearts broken, to get over it and yet still miss them: about striving to be our best selves for the sake of ourselves and the ones we love, but also acknowledging at the same time that we are deeply flawed, and that rather than attempting to suppress that, we should embrace the possibility of redemption, no matter how fictional. Love is not enough, it recognises – but maybe it’s all we’ve got. And maybe, sometimes, we’ve just gotta learn to find solace, and maybe one day even happiness, in that. It’s a film that offers hope in the face of what is easy to pass off as despair: and that, to me, is the highest praise I can give.