When the year-end rains hit, you know it's the season of bloated film spectaculars, Oscar-baiting performances, and reviewers' Top 10 lists. But in the quiet week after the Hollywood Christmas releases have beached, a fresh new youth movie tiptoes ashore.
Taiwanese director Chih-yen Yee's sparkling, unaffected second picture, Blue Gate Crossing, is a sketch of Meng Kerou, a teenage girl trying to decide whether she prefers boys or girls. The bicycle-riding Kerou hangs out with the more delicate Lin Yuezhen, who has a crush on a boy who sneaks into the school pool for nightly swims. To please her best girlfriend, Kerou agrees to track down the boy and see if he's amenable to going out with Yuezhen. But the boy, Zhang Shihao, fixates on Kerou herself and believes that she is using her friend as a pretext to get closer to him. Which may or may not be true -- Kerou isn't copping to anything at this point. Newcomer Lun-mei Guey suitably conveys Kerou's defensive bewilderment.
The smitten Yuezhen makes her conflicted friend Kerou wear a paper mask of Shihao's blown-up photo, and the two embrace in a slow dance. This way, both girls can fantasize about a love that seems denied to them.
The blue gate of the title doesn't appear literally in the film. But blue denotes water, which dominates a teenager's life during summer. Kerou studies Shihao as he swims laps, and they talk at the beach. Although not a big fan of swimming alone, the boy considers it his ticket to a college scholarship (his shirt reads "fish"). This summer of blue is a gate, or transition, for the teens, but how can they map a future when they don't know their present selves?
The characters have a limited vocabulary of words and actions with which to explore their desires. Shihao shouts questions repeatedly ("Then why did you kiss me?" "Are we broken up now?"), never getting an acceptable answer. His and Kerou's bicycles compulsively trace circles as the teens look for each other. Even their shoving match has a silently desperate mechanical quality. They emerge sweating and breathless from these tussles, having expended energy but not gotten much satisfaction.
There's a sense of living under pervasive surveillance. Even the beginnings of romance are voyeuristic, with one person tailing another on bicycle or at a darkened swimming pool. Somebody is always watching: other students, the PE teacher, the pool night watchman, even the nation -- in a few scenes the characters confront each other over the PA during the national anthem, while other students stand still at attention.
But the kids are irrepressible. Despite their fears of being found out (even holding hands is outlawed on school grounds), they need to shout or write down their true feelings. A love note, signed with a false name, appears pasted to the school floor for anyone to see. Although scuffing it off with their shoes is the most effective method of removal, Kerou and Shihao seem to be stomping on a private communication, as if denouncing it in an act of public self-criticism.
The graffiti wall is a free-writing zone designed to let students vent their feelings under school auspices, not a site for clandestine scribbling. But this area of free expression, being both private and public, doesn't allow for total honesty. Kerou repeatedly scrawls "I'm a girl, I like boys" on the wall, as if writing it could make it so. Although the film's trajectory seems to be one of same-sex friends learning how to let go and pair off in acceptably heterosexual couples, it's not clear that director Yee thinks the self-indoctrination is successful.
Kissing takes on major ramifications for these kids. Once they're face to face with the object of their desire, they don't know what to do next. Kissing seems like the obvious next step, but their efforts are tentative and disorienting. Even water bottles are emblems of kissing: Yuezhen saves one she saw Shihao drink from, and Kerou wonders if putting her lips to her PE teacher's proffered bottle means they have kissed. For the teenagers, a single kiss should answer the question "Which do I prefer -- boys or girls?" After one peck, Shihao (charmingly played by TV actor Bo-lin Chen) asks Kerou, "Are you still a lesbian?"
Adults are of only marginal help to these questing teens. The PE teacher, for example, is worse than useless as he risks being drawn into Kerou's kissing project. Kerou's mother lets her daughter climb in bed with her to tell her her troubles, but a final shot suggests that the mother is lost in her own heartbreak.
But heartbreak is not what Blue Gate Crossing is all about. Unlike coming-of-age films that focus on the loss of innocence, this one evokes the joy of waiting at the stoplight on your bicycle next to a smiling boy. When the light changes, who knows what will happen next?
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