Review: The Kids (Yu, 2015) – CAAMFest 2016
As a new parent, I often wonder what it would have been like to have had my first baby at a younger age, when I was more energetic and my body more resilient. Taiwanese writer/director Sunny Yu takes that concept to the extreme in her feature debut, The Kids, which, based on a true story, imagines the lives of two teen parents struggling to make ends meet. (In Chinese, the title, which can be taken as both plural or singular, is a double entendre that could refer either to the teens or their baby.)
Bao-li (Wu Chien-he) and Jia-jia (Wen Chen-ling) meet in school when Bao-li spots Jia-jia being bullied by a group of girls (whose ringleader accuses Jia-jia of stealing her boyfriend) and arrives in time to drape a jacket around Jia-jia’s drenched shoulders. His awkward romantic gesture is greeted with a hesitant smile.
Flash forward to present day. Bao-li works as a kitchen boy in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant. We learn that the sixteen-year-old is a new father and has dropped out of school to support his family. Far from seeming overwhelmed, he is brimming with purpose and plans. Jia-jia, too, has left school and now works at a cafe. But the (slightly) older girl doesn’t share Bao-li’s optimism about their life. The young couple and their baby, nicknamed Button, share a one-bedroom apartment with Bao-li’s mother (Debbie Yang). With her gambling addiction, however, Bao-li’s mother, who is responsible for watching Button while the youngsters work, is little more than a child herself.
Jia-jia, who has always sported a wan, wistful look, even in her more carefree pre-child days, now seems merely listless, smiling only during lovers’ rendezvous with her boss. When matters become even more difficult and hopeless for the couple, they each turn to their own desperate solutions.
Juxtaposed against today’s grim reality are flashbacks to Bao-li and Jia-jia’s innocent courtship. The contrast between past and present are jarring and sad, playing perhaps on the tendency of anyone who has gone through a rough spot in a relationship to look back on the rosy bygone and wonder how matters have come to this terrible head. One problem with The Kids is that this terrible head arrives so suddenly. In the span of a few days, Bao-li and Jia-jia’s situation goes from just bearable to nearly impossible in a series of scenes whose urgency feels both artificially constructed and, at times, melodramatic.
The other problem with the film is its unrealistic depiction of parenthood. Yu clearly doesn’t have a child herself. Caring for an infant goes beyond providing materially for the child–that is, working and buying formula and diapers–even if someone else is watching the kid during the day. But, aside from the additional financial burden and the occasional baby-holding, Bao-li and Jia-jia barely seem to be parents at all.
Those concerns aside, however, The Kids is still a strong debut by a compassionate young director. The film’s open-ended conclusion, in particular, speaks to Yu’s comfort with ambiguity and her aptitude for navigating emotional complexity. While the first CAAMFest screening of The Kids has already passed, you can still catch the second one at New People Cinema on March 20, 2016, at 7:10 pm. (And any new parent won’t be able to resist the très adorable Button–a worthwhile watch for the baby eye candy alone!)