04 Nov Teenage Dreamers Review By Silver Emulsion Film Reviews
Teenage Dreamers is a charming example of the Hong Kong youth film, a genre that has endeared itself to me over the years. Films about youth are common around the globe (we are all human, after all), but the movies out of Hong Kong have a unique flavor that I especially enjoy. Teenage Dreamers is no different in this regard, but where many of the films showcase delinquent youths, this film actually focuses on the innocence of youth. The characters here are happy, joyous, and falling in love; they are teenage dreamers on the cusp of a promising adulthood. They have some obstacles to overcome, but they are mostly of the frivolous variety that help shape your character in small, sometimes imperceptible ways.
Ting Ting (Elaine Chow Sau-Lan) and her friends attend an all-girls high school, and one day their beloved teacher Miss Tseng (So Hang-Suen) informs them that they will be putting on a production of Romeo and Juliet with an all-boys school. The captain of the boys’ drama team, Jackson Chan (Leslie Cheung), casts Ting Ting as Juliet, and their lives slowly grow together as the film progresses. Describing the plot of Teenage Dreamers like this is a daunting task. The film isn’t hard to follow or understand, it’s that the narrative is flighty and free-flowing. It perfectly reflects the lives of the teenage dreamers we’re spending our time with, who react on instinct and desire more than rational thought. Looking back on the film only makes me love it more, as to construct a cohesive film out of these unformed elements takes a truly skilled craftsman.
Director Clifford Choi’s approach is like a more naturalistic, subtle take on Chang Cheh’s youth pictures, specifically 1972’s Young People (which also has a pop star singing songs in a supporting role). But where Chang Cheh injected elements of action to make his youth films more of an overall entertainment experience, Choi is satisfied with simply engaging with the feel of youth itself. This willingness to take the next step artistically, to further incorporate Western techniques and leave behind more traditional ideas of filmmaking, is perhaps the most distinctive difference between the earlier studio-bound films and those of the Hong Kong New Wave. The interesting piece in this equation is that Chang Cheh pushed Hong Kong filmmaking in this direction over the course of his career, paving the way for the New Wave filmmakers to make their marks.
This incorporation of Western elements and ideals comes into play during the film as well. The aforementioned pop star of Teenage Dreamers, Rowena Cortes, serenades her friends on the beach with a song about their current life situation. It calls out their school subjects in English — Geology, History, Biology — while the parts of the song about the rest of their life is sung in Chinese. This could have been done for any number of reasons, but I chose to take it as a comment on the culture clash. To these kids of Hong Kong, who want nothing more than to live an uninhibited life of love and friendship, schooling is foreign and unnatural. They understand it, but it’s separate from their purest desires and instincts.
I had only seen one film of Clifford Choi’s previously, 1983’s Hong Kong, Hong Kong, which he made for Shaw Brothers directly after Teenage Dreamers. The two films are both essentially about youth and love, but Hong Kong, Hong Kong is a stark, heartbreaking look at the illegal immigration of Mainland refugees. Where Teenage Dreamers is populated with characters who have opportunities for bright futures, Hong Kong, Hong Kong centers around a teenager with nothing to her name and not an opportunity in sight. She dreams of love, as well, but to much different results. The two films offer complimentary looks at youth in Hong Kong during the early ’80s, and they were both very successful in their day.
Teenage Dreamers is a charming, subtle film of the Hong Kong New Wave, and it’s great to finally see it receive a US release on digital platforms thanks to Celestial. Fans of Leslie Cheung will definitely want to check this one out for a very early performance from one of Hong Kong’s greatest and sorely missed talents.
Watch Teenage Dreamers with Prime Video: http://amzn.to/2ysfDKV