High School Folk Otaku Battle – Our Shining Days (2017)

This is one of those happy occasions when serendipity took a hand. Our Shining Days [Shǎnguāng Shàonǚ] (2017) wasn’t on any long-term personal list of movies I’d like to see. Skimming through the titles leaving streaming services at the end of the month, a random whim led me to look up the trailer for a movie I’d never heard of – and so I found myself sucked inexorably into this hugely entertaining high school culture clash romp.

Our Shining Days is set at an unnamed music academy where the lines of social status are firmly drawn between the classical music tradition of the west and the traditional folk music of China. Top of the pecking order are the Classical students – smartly dressed in crisp black & white formality, strolling serenely through spacious marble corridors, with access on demand to the best facilities the school can provide. And then there are the Folk students – casually dressed in tracksuits, crowded into substandard facilities, forced to make creative use of their surroundings to cook themselves a decent lunch of noodles. The frequent clashes between “snobs” and “bumpkins” inevitably end the same way – the Classical students get off scot-free and the Folk students cop all of the blame. Our sympathies, of course, are firmly on the side of the underdogs.

Chen Jing (Xu Lu), also known uncharitably as “Jinx Chen”, is a poorly motivated yangqin player who prides herself on being able to drift through life without any major attachment – except, that is, for her immense crush on Wang Wen (Luo Mingjie), a talented classical pianist and the hottest boy in the school. Perennially by her side is her only friend, percussionist Li You (Peng Yuchang), loyally hanging on to his own silent crush on Jing while she waxes rhapsodic about her star-crossed would-be romance. After plucking up the courage to speak to Wen only for him to insult her choice of instrument – doubly insulting since their instruments share the same roots – she decides to form her own folk music ensemble in a poorly thought through attempt to get back at him.

All seems lost when the other folk students prove to be too busy with study or part-time employment, until Li You suggests the unthinkable – approach the occupants of the Forbidden Dorm Room 502… the Otaku girls!! Xiao Mai (Liu Yongxi), their blue-haired de facto leader, plays the guzheng and is also secretly the YouTube phenomenon known as “Lord of a Thousand Fingers”. Ying Zi (Li Nuo) and Beibei (Lu Zhaohua) are committed to the Lolita aesthetic, playing erhu and ruan respectively. Tata (Han Zhongyu), the most vulnerable to bullying, doesn’t speak and hides in the depths of her hoodie but plays a mean pipa. Outcasts among outcasts, and initially unimpressed by Jing’s lack of commitment to the history of Chinese folk music, they agree to join when she bribes them with the promise of resin garage kit models (completely unaware of what they are let alone how expensive). They also get to name the band 2.5 Dimension, representing the meeting point between the Second Dimension (anime/manga) and the Third (reality).

At first 2.5 Dimension are stymied by the lack of anywhere to practice, with all existing facilities fully booked by Classical students and the teachers unwilling to make any concessions. Li You saves the day once more, doing a deal with the school caretaker (Cui Kefa) to open up a hall after hours. After making a successful debut at an Animation, Comics and Games convention, Jing’s subsequent attempt to make romantic headway with Wen bombs spectacularly, causing her to immediately give up on the band – not realising until too late just how much of a betrayal this is to the rest of 2.5 Dimension. Considering quitting her instrument, the revelation after the term break that the school plans to abandon teaching traditional Chinese folk music altogether acts as the trigger for Wen to finally commit to something, rallying her student cohort to demonstrate that their chosen musical genre still has value.

It has to be acknowledged that, on one level, this movie is a propaganda puff piece for traditional Chinese culture – but this in no way inhibits the overall fun and irreverent attitude of the movie, and quite frankly I’m perfectly happy with elevating modern recognition of traditional Chinese music and instruments. It’s a very playful film which is happy to take liberties with representational reality. The opening scene of students battling in the corridors and cymbals lodging in the walls like shuriken wouldn’t be out of place in a St Trinian’s film. The introduction of the Otaku girls gives the filmmakers license to add animated interludes and comedy hearts bubbling up from Jing as she gazes longingly at Wen – hearts which, as fans of the Second Dimension, the Otaku girls are able to both see and interact with.

One standout scene in the last third of the movie involves a battle of the bands between the Classical and Folk students during a school inspection by an unnamed representative of the Ministry of Education (a cameo appearance by Eason Chan, a Cantopop/Mandopop singer with a career spanning over two decades and who has apparently been the most-streamed Hong Kong artist on Spotify for five years running). Puzzled by the newly installed iron gate fencing off the Folk students from the rest of the school, his initial intrigue turns to delight as musicians begin to appear one by one, first in the Folk students’ corridor then in the facing corridor belonging to the Classical students. As their respective ensembles build, the strains of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebees [Полёт шмеля] (1900) bounce back and forth between the two until one side finally falters. The Ministry official, having enjoyed the experience immensely, instructs the school authorities to remove the iron gate separating the two schools of music from each other – a symbolic gesture of cross-fertilisation which in another movie I might consider to be overly heavy-handed, but which I found myself embracing in the context of this light-hearted confection. Ultimately this movie is about bringing people together from across cultural barriers, breaking down hierarchies orchestrated by cultural gatekeepers and finding value in all of their various enthusiasms. It’s especially refreshing for a film like this to embrace geek culture wholeheartedly, rather than adopting the warier stance more typical of mainstream US movies and TV which, despite becoming more accepting over time, still tend to view fandom as intrinsically puerile.

Our Shining Days is director Wang Ran’s first and only film to date, but it’s an effective demonstration of his versatility and bodes well for future projects. Screenwriter Bao Jingjing, the director’s wife, has a string of romantic comedies dating back to 2011 under her belt – although none of her earlier films feature teenage protagonists, there’s no reason to believe that they would be any less fun. Our Shining Days won Best Film, Best New Director and Best Screenwriter at the 14th China Movie Channel Media Awards and was successful enough that the couple were commissioned to re-format the concept as a 24-episode TV series (2019) – disappointingly, but not surprisingly, featuring an entirely new cast. The film’s young leads all contribute suitably engaging performances, but I have to single out Xu Lu (aka Lulu Xu) who won four different awards Best Actress awards for her charming and characterful performance in the lead role. She has the most extensive career to date among her co-stars, appearing in multiple film and TV roles – most notable to me being her appearance in the top-notch historical thriller series The Longest Day in Chang’an [Chang’an shi er shi chen] (2019) as Yang Guifei, consort to the Emperor and one of the Four Beauties of ancient China. I’m also curious to see how Liu Yongxi’s career develops – apart from being a talented guzheng player in real life, she’s appropriately forbidding here as the leader of the Otaku girls (winning her an award as Best Supporting Actress) and has appeared more recently in Unparalleled Mulan [Mulan zhi Jinguo yinghao] (2020), one of four Chinese films about the legendary folk heroine competing for the box office that year against Disney’s Mulan (2020).

It may be just a lightweight high school musical romantic comedy, but it pushed my buttons perfectly and I’d watch it again at the drop of a hat.

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