Fifteen Candles (2000)

Directed by: Tan
Written by: Tan & Jimmy Sin
Producer: Claudie Ma
Starring: Jerry Ma, Law Koon-Lan, Yu Ip Sing, Chan Hau Ngok & Yip King Sung

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Fifteen Candles is an obscure little drama that I never would've seen if Santa hadn't given it to me. I did recognize the dvd cover art from somewhere but there's not a lot of information out there on director Tan's movie. It disappeared quickly from theaters in September of 2000 (it played for 6 days) and left behind a box office profit of 2430 HK dollars.

Kwan (Jerry Ma) is a good student who seem to make friends in the wrong kind of crowd, most notably in the triad wannabe Kau (Yu Ip Sing). Kwan's main focus in life is making sure his mom gets the treatment she needs for her kidney disease. As time goes by he develops an unlikely friendship with Kau and to ease the health care of Kwan's mom, the two of them decide to pull off a dangerous scam...

It's always easier to write up a lengthy review when you have researchable background of most players involved in a certain production but with Fifteen Candles it was like starting from scratch literally. This is a low key drama and the directing style has to mirror that as well. Tan rarely uses any stylistic filmtricks but instead lets it all play out in front of us, making the movie almost look like a documentary actually. That is a well worn cliché but I still felt that, in parts, that what I saw could've been real life moments caught by a filmcamera.

Tan and Jimmy Sin's screenplay doesn't offer a lot of new ideas but still feels fresh at certain times. First of all, I was glad that the triad part of the movie went out the door after a while. If it had stayed Fifteen Candles would've been too much of a conventional genre film I think. What makes this story more interesting is the fact that our main characters are only 15 years old and at a critical time in their lives. It's a time of choosing who you want to be and at a glance only one of the boys seem to have a future. Kwan has a dialogue with Kau where he plainly says that hard work will pay off even if you think you're at a dead end now. They then both take a chance that is up to debate whether it's necessary or not. Tan's message is spoken out but it is also subtle in it's own way. It's a thing where the audience needs to participate also and pick up the meaning of things. That's hard thing to do but Tan pulls it off mostly thanks to the natural abilities of the young actors.

The music is done by Lau Yee Tat who is either the actor we've seen in Juliet In Love and God Of Cookery or someone with the exact same name. Either way it's worth mentioning that it's not a movie with a huge amount of composed score cues but instead heavy guitar pieces dominate the audio. At certain intense moments it fits fairly well but mostly it just becomes annoying when the guitars loop the same piece over and over in several scenes. It is only towards the end that Lau Yee Dat shows off some traditional film score. It's a more tense part of the film and the score, combined with the editing of Yiu Tin Hung, does it's job ok. Probably the most famous name on the credits is Tung Wai (director of Hitman and action choreographer on Purple Storm) who provided the production with some small bits of action. Nothing too fancy, just your normal triad brawl in a restaurant and a similar scene in the school's toilet. Fifteen Candles doesn't need more and therefore I can't really say bad things about Tung Wai's work.

Among the actors there's a handful of new faces and only one veteran which is Law Koon-Lan (mother of Kwan). It's a very understated and warm performance which means no huge emotional outbursts but works all the better for it. She and Jerry Ma really looks like an actual mother and son couple and for Jerry I can't imagine it being hard to sink into his role with Law Koon-Lan in front of him. Jerry Ma's character was harder to understand fully and we don't always agree what choices he takes in his daily life. First we don't want to see him getting involved with someone like Kau since we fear he is going to go down hard and quick with him. After a while though their friendship doesn't involve the triad life anymore. Then Kwan finally comes off as very grounded and not only the written words makes the character interesting, it's the nicely detailed performance by Jerry also. He looks the part and only a few scenes bear the trait of a newcomer to the industry.

Yu Ip Sing grows both as a character and an actor during the course of the movie. His characterarc is nowhere near original (troubled kid with a drub abusive father) but thanks to his natural acting and energy, it becomes a little more than just a tired cliché on-screen persona. His interplay with Jerry Ma feels genuine enough and ranks as the movie's second strength next to Kwan and his mom's relationship.

If there's something to complain about it's that Tan and Jimmy Sin has written too many characters. Some of them seem like they're going to have a huge part in the film but sort of disappears completely when the movie focuses more on the main characters only. Especially Kwan's girlfriend Ping just gets left out without any logical explanation.

Fifteen Candles isn't going to be seen by many people but for those seeking movies in all genres, I think it's worth a look. Certainly far from a classy film but interesting nonetheless.

The DVD:

Winson Entertainment presents the movie in it's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The print has huge amount of damage in certain parts (the reel changes perhaps?) but does look clean and ok in terms of sharpness. The latter leads to some edge enhancement at times but nothing too distracting.

I listened to the Cantonese Dolby Digital 2.0 track which seems to be the original mix. It's completely centered and comes across nicely except for a few scenes where dialogue sounded a bit muffled. A 5.1 option is also on the disc as well as the same two audio choices in Mandarin.

The English subtitles contain some inaccuracies but overall seemed accurate and presented well. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also included. No extras are present on the disc.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson