In an exclusive music academy, the classical and Chinese folk students are fiercely separated, with the folk music department on the verge of being closed down. Chen Jing (Xu Lu) plays the yangqin, a Chinese fore-runner to the piano, and has a crush on the school’s top piano player Wang Wen (Luo Mingjie). When he casually dismisses the yangqin as a legitimate instrument, Jing decides to form a band to showcase her talents; roping in her best friend Li You (Peng Yuchang) and four anime obsessives whom she bribes with collectable figurines to help.
Our Shining Days is a charming teen comedy, populated with likeable characters and peppered with effective musical sequences that incorporate classical European music, traditional Chinese folk, and even brief elements of rock and electronica. It is also a great example of the ‘underdog’ comedy, in which a disparate group of people – usually depicted as freaks and losers – band together to prove themselves and win a tournament. In my opinion Masayuki Suo’s Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t (1992) remains the high water mark for this niche genre, but Our Shining Days is a rock solid contender. It is a hugely entertaining confection.
Xu Lu is excellent as Chen Jing. Her comic timing is impeccable, and she pushes her character’s eccentricities just enough to be hilarious to watch but not so exaggerated as to become silly. Part of the film’s success in that regard comes from the film slowly transforming her as it goes. She becomes less goofy and more confident as the story progresses. Perhaps less subtly the film also gradually transforms her appearance. As she gains confidence and purpose her appearance evolves to make her less a stereotypical nerd and more a stereotypical romantic and conventionally attractive young woman. At some point the film even ditches her glasses; either she switches to contact lenses off-screen or she spends the last half hour of the film effective blind.
A more welcome shift comes in her story. She begins the film desperate to show off her skills with the yangqin, so she can impress the boy she fancies. When he rejects her – and quite brutally too – her motivation bounces smoothly away from seducing him to simply proving a point instead: that folk music is just as valid a musical style as classical. It is a well-executed shift that manages to maintain her dignity and never slip into making her appear foolish. A string of musical sequences during the film help Jing make her pont, and also act as a fresh change in style for the film overall. It’s great music, and played with both an uplifting tone and nicely placed moments of humour.
One of the more entertaining supporting features in the group of four Japanese anime obsessives, or ‘otaku’, that Jing drags in to help her form a band. One’s a moody and ill-tempered master musician, another a non-verbal and nervous young woman who hides beneath a voluminous hood, and the other two a closely-knit pair of videogamers in ‘lolita’ fashions. There is a lot of gentle mockery undertaken of the otaku subculture, but also individual moments for the characters to give them their own agency in the story. There is not really any ridicule, just a quirky sense of appealing humour.
That appealing feel stretches throughout the film. It does not just amuse its audience; it makes us happy. Director Wang Ran has crafted a beautiful sense of play to the story, and joy to its characters. It makes Our Shining Days as much fun to hang around with as its title suggests.
At the time of writing, Our Shining Days is available to stream via Netflix.