Emphasized by sugary and excessively colorful visuals, the beginning of Philip Young's May We Chat
epitomizes everything that's most shallow about contemporary youth culture. Teenagers consciously trapped in a virtual realm take pictures of shoes, food, themselves, and communicate via smartphones in an inconceivably rapid and impressively efficient fashion.
Even though the film initially looks like a showy and lukewarm pop-teen drama, it smoothly moves onto heavier grounds and delivers an unflinching, striking, and utterly convincing portrayal of the darkest side of a seemingly typical teenager's life, without ever losing its commercial appeal.
While the rom-com-y title might be somewhat misleading, it's a very adequate play on the name of the enormously popular Chinese voice and text-messaging application WeChat. It's this practical yet addictive mobile app that brings three schoolgirls together on an unforgettably intense ride through Hong Kong's bottomless underground filled with drugs, sex, thugs, and violence.
Sporting a pink wig, Chiu Wai-ying (Rainky Wai) is a deaf-mute girl who has to earn money through compensated dating; Li Wing-yan (Kabby Hui) is an emotionally unstable posh girl who seems to be interested only in high-end clothes and handsome boys; Wai-wai (Heidi Li) lives with her drug-addicted mother and resourceful little sister, but spends a huge amount of time in the company of teen gang members.
Chance encounter in virtual reality leads Chiu and Wai-wai onto an extensive and exhaustive search for the insecure and gullible Li, who tried to attempt suicide but failed, and then suddenly disappeared. "We can find her through your son's WeChat" is a line that hints at hope, but in the long run accentuates not only the rising problem of Internet/social media addiction, but also the real-life-related confusion that the young ladies evidently can't cope with.
The girls try to do everything they can to trace Li's whereabouts with the help of modern technology, however in the end it's not really the app but human bonding that gives them the ability to plunge further into a dangerous territory, try to save the girl, and earn a big sum of money - obviously another fine driving force. To call their relationship a friendship would perhaps be an overstatement, but undoubtedly there are some visible signs of a growing emotional attachment.
Given its many arresting and unexpected transitions in narrative, the film sometimes strikes as being tonally uneven. However, it's crucial to note that May We Chat's target audience are mostly the youngest viewers, so the mix of various elements taken from different genres is pretty much understandable, and eventually even strengthens the film's dynamic image.
What follows the sweet and amusing beginning modernized with speech bubbles appearing all over the screen is a dark and socially-relevant crime-mystery plot that cleverly exposes some of the issues that people living in poor parts of Hong Kong (or any other place for that matter) have to deal with on a daily basis. Assaulting the viewer with a few images that are downright depressing, the storyline evaluates the troubled lives of its main characters, and actually uses the disappearance of one teenager in order to thoroughly examine their difficult environment.
Production design is always adequate to the tone. Everything's illuminating when the girls innocently chat over the phone. Then a starkly contrasting color palette fills the settings so as to set the mood for some upcoming grittier moments and, for the benefit of the story, the thriller-like atmosphere lasts till the very last minutes. Pensive classical tones intensify the pain and occasional sadness.
A few grainy scenes reference David Lai's 1982 drama Lonely Fifteen, but their inclusion can be more confusing than sentimental, especially for underage viewers. Nevertheless those viewers who still remember how meaningful and controversial Lai's film really was will be delighted with the recurring allusions, which elegantly imply that one of the mothers here is also one of the juvenile delinquents from Lonely Fifteen.
Bolstered by great performances from the three female leads, May We Chat shows the unique power of young talent. The girls are clearly having fun even with the toughest material on hand and, when the right time comes, skillfully identify and expose all of their characters' personality traits, making the roles distinctly memorable. Men do a lot of damage throughout, but male roles don't necessarily have a lot of influence on the film's energetic aura. It's the women who are indeed in control of the action.
Being one of the rare modern teen dramas that openly allow for young actors to display their impressive abilities, May We Chat might be one of the unlikely signs of a brighter future for the whole genre.