Classroom fun unfolds into crazy melodrama

Dong Zijian and Cherry Ngan play the leads in At Cafe 6.
Dong Zijian and Cherry Ngan play the leads in At Cafe 6.PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE

REVIEW / DRAMEDY-ROMANCE

AT CAFE 6 (PG13)

102 minutes/Opens tomorrow/2.5/5 stars

The story: High-school best friends Kuan Min-lu (Dong Zijian) and Hsiao Po-chih (Austin Lin) will stop at nothing in the pursuit of their dream girls, Li Hsin-jui (Cherry Ngan) and Tsai Shin-yi (Ouyang Nini), respectively. When everyone goes his separate way after graduating from high school, Min-lu wonders if it is all worth it.

Following the immense box-office successes of Taiwanese coming-of-age films You're The Apple Of My Eye (2011) and Our Times (2015) across the region, it is perhaps natural to think this film, adapted from a popular Web novel, is clearly hoping to find the same level of success by treading familiar ground.

From Cafe 6's nostalgic Taiwan high-school setting to its fresh-faced young cast, it seems that its producers were using the same formula as those earlier hits.

In Hong Kong, it is even marketed alongside them as the third part in a "Taiwan youth drama trilogy".

But the new film's opening scenes of carefree student fun in the classroom quickly veer into crazy melodrama and, tonally, it becomes a very different sort of film.

Things get sombre very fast as all sorts of maudlin plot points are tossed into the story, from terminal illnesses to struggles with depression to serious bouts of heartbreak.

The schmaltz works better in the source material - as evidenced by writer-director Neal Wu's use of incredibly poetic excerpts from the novel on the screen - than in the film, where the same sentiments make it more intense than a Hokkien soap opera.

The casting here also pales in comparison with Apple or Our Times. As hard as he tries, the leading man here - newbie Chinese actor Dong Zijian - is never as charismatic as Apple's Kai Ko or Our Times' Talu Wang.

His distracting Northern Chinese accent sticks out like a sore thumb in the Taiwan setting and he lacks the screen presence necessary to pull off the Prince Charming idol role.

Hong Kong actress Cherry Ngan, who plays the girl he pines after, does better in the accent department, but her wilful nature often comes off more annoying than endearing.

The focus should have been on the film's second male lead, Taiwan's rising star Austin Lin, instead. His goofy antics and malleable face make his likable and earnest character the only memorable thing about this poor imitation of some much stronger films.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 13, 2016, with the headline 'Classroom fun unfolds into crazy melodrama'. Print Edition | Subscribe