It’s strange to leave the cinema with a heavy heart and not know why. Baffled, I went for another screening the next day. I sniffed at the potential cliches but came out choking on my tears. I certainly wasn’t expecting this from At Cafe 6 (六弄咖啡馆).
When You Are the Apple of My Eye became a smash hit in 2011, a formula was set for the Taiwanese romantic youth genre. Nostalgia, crushes and friendships become keystone ingredients for a box-office success. At Cafe 6, it would seem another entrant is following its predecessors.
一張照片 半句再見 塵封的紀念
But author Neal Wu ( 吴子云 ), also double-billing and debuting as the film’s director, insists this is a different outing. Famous last words.
The film does rehash the familiar. A traditional Taiwanese school setting, mischievous boys, nostalgic elements and even that obligatory spontaneous play scene in a rice field – it’s all there. But to give it credit, it shifts gear significantly further in, and explores uncharted topics. The focus remains on the effects of physical distance, emotional maturity and changing ideals between the relationship of young couple Guan Ming Lu and Li Xin Rui, but darker themes such as depression and death start to haunt the later half complete with a darker colour palette.
Dong Zi Jian ( 董子健 ) is our lovelorn Guan who grows deeply attached to Li, played by Cherry Ngan ( 颜卓灵 ). Both leads raised some eyebrows in Taiwan, as Dong is a Beijing native, while Cherry comes from Hong Kong. Understandably, some questioned the casting choice. My companion even remarked on their distinct accents, but I found it negligible.
What probably won the critics over and grabbed my attention were the performances by both, especially Dong, who injects levels of earnest and heartbreak that it’s impossible not feel for his sacrifices. Winsome and idealistic at the start, this single-parent kid smashes face-first into reality when the people and circumstances around him slowly snuff out his youth and flame.
Cherry’s Li comes across almost careless in her treatment of Dong’s Guan when she waxes about reality and the transient nature of things, but plays a pivotal role to show how differing maturity levels – real or aspired – and distance can ultimately tear two lovers apart.
一端在彼 一端在天 兩端成直線
Some relief comes from their sidekicks Xiao Bo Zhi and Cai Xin Yi, acted by Lin Bo Hong ( 林柏宏 ) and Ouyang Ni Ni ( 欧阳妮妮 ) respectively.
Relative rookie actor Lin hams it up big time and steals moments away during his charismatic appearances. His steadfast friendship with Guan goes all the way, even to its bitter end as he fulfills a promise. Lin’s cheekiness is disarming only because it is matched by his own goofy, misunderstood antics. The sassy Ouyang matches up with her playful disregard of Lin’s Xiao, giving plenty of comic opportunities during the film as they develop in their own fashion.
Credit also goes to veteran Huang Zi Jiao ( 黄子佼 ) who effortlessly plays up the hilarious form teacher to the students.
為何不放 既是過往 雲煙
想要遺忘 怎麼反覆 掛牽
So what sets this film apart? Spoilers ahead people.
When the relationship between Guan and Li falls apart, the boy tries his best to understand his lack. This is made worse for the fact that he didn’t actually do anything wrong. His sacrifices to negate the distance, taking odd jobs and working late hours just to spend all he can on train fares to see Li, ends up in naught as she looks far ahead into her future and realises they seem to be on divergent paths.
In an explosive climax cafe scene, he breaks and yells, “It’s true, I’ve not seen your helplessness. But have you seen my effort?” Bitterly, she admits, “That’s why I don’t blame you,” even as realisation dawns for both that they have strayed too far apart.
As Guan struggles with this loss, he is dealt another, as he receives a call informing him that his mother, whom he neglected to visit, has quietly passed away. Two of his greatest love taken away in a short time – one can only imagine.
So towards the end, as he makes the ultimate decision to end his life by walking into the sea, we are left disturbed. Our society doesn’t take kindly to suicides. And yet the fact is – there are people who reach that place.
How must Guan feel when he loses both treasured relationship – one he gave his all for and one he took for granted? The solution is probably cowardly to some, or foolish to others, especially in an age where people have “no regrets” as their mantra and moments are priced above commitment and work. But what is popular may not truly reflect what is real. Hasty brave affirmations may be just empty shells. This fact is echoed by many in the forums, who have identified and offered up their own parallel stories of loss and being on the brink.
So maybe because this film celebrates loss as it is, neither noble nor shameful, that puts it apart from the other coming-of-age films. Because sometimes, some just have a different kind of ending that should lie beyond casual judgement. One that we may not understand, and hopefully don’t have to.
For those who know me, my story is also reflected somewhat. With chillingly word for word being replayed on the screen, it’s cathartic for me to know that it’s okay to not have close ones agree to what I am doing. And I certainly cannot expect people to understand my experience in choosing to do what I am doing.
Director Wu’s inaugural adaptation of his own work may suffer a little from proximity. And certain lines and thoughts don’t translate well from book to screen, sounding overly philosophical and even a little condescending at times. Another thing that needed more finesse were the time lapses and physical location of the characters. But as far as an original interpretation goes, he has managed to toss out a few new thoughts for us to mull on – I look forward to his future foray. Two thumbs up also to the attractive cast for a convincing, heartfelt performance and the production crew for some solid production visuals.
In summary, I guess I can only say this film is (like one fan aptly put) 太好哭了! (So good to cry to!)
At Cafe 6 has ended its run in Singapore cinemas but is still showing overseas. You can also catch it when it comes out in DVD and Blu-ray. Fingers crossed.
P.S. Sun Yanzi’s theme song for the movie has lyrics written by Neal (and is featured in this post) and chronicles the story and the process beautifully. Enjoy!