Han Yan’s latest film, the romantic First Time, is much like the cassette tapes that play a central role in the film. There are two distinct sides: Side A is the typical cinematic romance; and Side B is a deconstruction of every convention in Side A. Like some cassettes though, the more you re-record over the tape the higher the chances that your favourite song gets buried in the noise. While First Time features numerous moments that work beautifully, Yan’s constant need to remix the audiences perception is ultimately the films downfall.
First Time tells the story of college student Song Shiqiao (played by model Angelababy) who has been suffering from a rare disease since she was a child. As a result of this condition, she cannot over exert herself, as it could lead to her death. This is why Shiqiao’s overprotective mother (Shan Jiang) has instituted several strict rules to ensure her safety. In addition to obeying her mother’s stern rules, Shiqiao must also frequently take medication that affects her ability to remember things. This leads Shiqiao to record all of her thoughts on cassette to fill in any gaps she may have. Fortunately for Shiqiao, her life takes a positive turn when a past high school crush, Gong Ning (Mark Chao), comes back into her life. As love begins to blossom between the sickly Shiqiao and the bad boy rocker Ning, it slowly becomes apparent that there is another side to this romance.
The first half of Yan’s film plays like a standard romantic comedy. There is an overall sweetness to the courtship that features several amusing moments. As Shiqiao becomes more drawn to Ning, her mother becomes increasingly disapproving of his lack of ambition. The majority of this section feels like a romantic film’s “how to guide” as First Time even features a scene where Ning must make a grand gesture to win back Shiqiao. While a little over sentimental for its own good, Yan infuses enough wit and charm to make the formulaic moments easier to swallow.
It is when the film takes a surprising turn that First Time becomes both interesting and extremely frustrating at the same time. Han Yan wants to show how the perfect romance often displayed in films is far from perfect. While his attempts are intriguing at first, Yan’s lack of trust in the audience’s intelligence really hinders the film. First Time frequently double’s back on itself to show how certain scenes are not what they appeared to be. This would have been fine on its own, but Yan’s need to explain every single connection is rather annoying. Even the closing credits feature scenes that really did not need any further explanation.
By explaining away any sense of mystery in the film and not letting the audience figure things out for themselves, Yan’s film ends up feeling much longer than it really is. The lack of tight editing also causes the film to suffer from multiple-ending syndrome. This is a shame as there is much in First Time that worked well. The film is beautifully shot and Yan does a great job of incorporating animation in the film to emphasize Shiqiao fantasies and emotions. Another positive is the performances, especially on the part of Mark Chao who does a good job of portraying a man who is struggling with his own family issues. It is just too bad that Yan’s need to clarify everything ultimately overshadows all the things the film did right. As a result is tough to give First Time anything more than a mild recommendation at best.