“Teenage days we all need a romance that hurts” exclaims a rejected teen, too shy to declare her crush directly but trying to achieve a kind of closure by literally shouting it from the rooftops in Lai Meng-jie’s charming teenage rom-com, Stand By Me (陪你很久很久, Péi Nǐ Hěn Jiǔ Hěn Jiǔ). For Jiu-Bing (Mason Lee), however, his romance has gone on a little longer than just his teenage years. He’s been silently in love with Bo-he (Ivy Shao Yu-Wei) since he was 12, but their relationship has remained at the innocent level of childhood friendship. Nevertheless, all of his subsequent decisions have been taken with one aim in mind, being at Bo-he’s side to protect her. Now that they’re grown, he’ll have to come to terms with the fact that their relationship is inevitably going to have to change in one way or another.
As with most youngsters, those changes arrive as they set off for university (he’s enrolled in the same one as her for that reason alone). No matter how close you are, it can be quite claustrophobic having someone buzzing around you all day and Bo-he is beginning to get fed up with Jiu-Bing’s continuing immaturity. He’s promised to “protect” her, but often ends up in trouble himself and needs her to rescue him. It’s Bo-he that finds him a place to stay after he accidentally blows up his new student dorm and gets kicked out, only it turns out to be half of a teenage girl’s bedroom above a family bakery, rented out by high schooler Xia-Tian (Tsai Jui-Hsueh) without her father’s (Chu Chung-heng) permission as an enterprising way to get a little more pocket money. Meanwhile, Bo-he has fallen for a handsome, heroic classmate, Mai-zi (Edison Song Bai-Wai), who is, in every stereotypical way, the perfect man.
In an ironic twist, Jiu-Bing’s part-time job is as a “pacer”, supporting other runners as they make their way towards the finish line but eventually dropping back himself. He takes pride in being there for people, protecting and encouraging them, but still struggles to accept the fact that his chosen role inevitably means he’ll spend his life celebrating the successes of others rather than his own. Jiu-Bing eventually has this fact thrown in his face when a romantic rival describes him as nothing more than a rebound guy, implying that Bo-he only sees him as a fallback she can rely on when some other boy breaks her heart but will never really want to be with in the long term.
On one level, Jiu-Bing is fine with that. He really does just want Bo-he to be happy even if it’s with someone else, but still struggles with the decision of whether to speak his feelings out loud and risk ruining their friendship or keep silent and live with the pain of being just her friend forever. As one of his eccentrically nerdy friends puts it, companionship is the “dark matter” that supports a relationship, but the jury’s still out on whether companionship alone is enough to go the distance. Meanwhile, he remains entirely oblivious to the fact that Xia-Tian is beginning to develop feelings for him that place her in exactly the same place as he is with Bo-he. Maybe he just thinks of Xia-Tian as a crazy little sister, and maybe Bo-he just thinks of him as a troublesome little brother who will always need looking after despite his constant protestations that all he wants is to be able to “protect” her.
What Jiu-Bing learns however is that being a pacer is no bad thing. It’s much better to run with someone than to run alone, but there are times when you just need to set a pace for yourself so you can figure out how far you can run. There are more ways to love than just the romantic, though maybe that’ll come in time but perhaps not from the direction you’d expected. “Being heard and accepted is nothing we can decide” Xia-Tian adds, and what is teenage romance other than coming to an acceptance that sometimes you love people who don’t love you back? But then sometimes they do, and if you never say anything you’ll never know. Jiu-Bing has some growing up to do, and a few decisions to make so he can figure out where it is he ought to be – supporting from the sidelines or waiting with flowers near the podium. Either way, Lai Meng-Jie’s charming teenage rom-com is a refreshingly progressive take on the genre which allows it’s “nice guy” hero to find solace in the authenticity of his generosity while its heroine embraces her own sense of agency entirely independent of her romantic destiny.
Stand By Me screens at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center on Feb. 17 where the full lineup for the upcoming 10th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema will also be unveiled. Director Lai Meng-jie will be in attendance for an introduction and post-screening Q&A.
Original trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)