Sylvia Chang shakes up the comedy scene with the sweet and quirky 20,30,40
“l looked at the same man for 30 years. Now there are new ones. Why shouldn’t I stare?”
Sylvia Chang hs a long and varied history in Hong Kong cinema. Once known primarily an actress, she quickly moved on to directing and currently has over a dozen films to her name, and even more as writer or co-writer. She’s often spoken about being a voice for female stars and characters, in what she describes as a male-dominated cinematic scene. It’s a view that’s hard to disagree with, after all, with one Ann Hui for every dozen Johnnie Tos. So it’s refreshing to see something like her 2004 comedy-drama 20, 30, 40, which focuses on three – technically four – women at different stages in their lives.
There’s Xiao Jie (Angelica Lee) is a 20-year-old Malaysian girl who moves to Taipei to achieve her dreams of becoming a pop star. She goes to see Shi Ge (Anthony Wong), a struggling music producer, who wants to market her and another girl Tong (Kate Yeung) as twins to the music market. Xiao and Tong grow close and learn the ups and downs of dreaming big. The second story is about Xiang Xiang (Rene Liu) is a flight attendant, just 30, who is struggling with balancing the men in her lives. One is a stable choice, but married, and another is a musician who is too hotheaded and young.
The third story revolves around florist Lily (Sylvia Chang), who divorces her husband after discovering he has another family. At 40, and newly single, she has trouble reintegrating herself back into the dating scene, and instead buries herself in her work. It is there that she meets Jerry (Tony Leung Ka-fai), who seems to take a liking to her. The three stories deal with the everyday lives of these women, and how your priorities and dreams change as you age.
As you’d imagine, each of these stories are fairly low-key, which makes sense when you only have half an hour to forty minutes per segment, although this isn’t divided evenly. While Xiang seems to take up a lot of the first minutes of the film, her story starts to be pushed into the background as the other ones kick into gear, and as a result hers is probably the weakest of the three, with the audience likely to invest themselves less in what’s going on with her. With Lily and Xiao, the emotional stakes feel a little higher, and that’s likely due to the fact their lives and worlds are more fleshed out. It’s a shame, because there’s nothing wrong with Xiang’s story, it just seems like there’s less to tell.
Now, I’m not a Chinese woman in either her twenties, thirties or forties, so I can’t exactly give my verdict on how well this speaks to the demographic, but the overall message I think is universal. This is where Chang succeeds the most. Combining her writing and directing skills, she presents to us vignettes where the maybe the specifics are more meaningful to the intended audience, but the general beats are all very relatable. Sure, nothing really meshes together well (there are some scenes where characters from different stories occupy the same geography, but that’s it), but the whole movie moves along at a decent pace, and is all straightforward enough for none of it to feel particularly jarring.
I can imagine this being labelled as a chick flick, and maybe it is, but that title doesn’t give the movie enough credit. As I mentioned earlier, Chang’s direction is very sharp, and she manages to simultaneously give life to three completely unconnected and fairly by-the-colours stories. The result is a good, if not exactly great, slice of life that will likely speak more to an audience that isn’t me. It’s worth checking out if you’re tired of the same old Katherine Heigl stuff, and much of the rest is a bit too masculine-helmed for your tastes. 20, 30, 40 gives you a film that’s told from a perspective you don’t get to see very often, and is charming and fun enough to watch for that purpose alone.
Verdict: 20, 30, 40 tells three honest stories filled with wit and appeal, and sometimes that’s all you need.
Overall entertainment: 7/10
Violence to fish: 8/10
Xiang’s taste in men: 0/10
Lily’s taste in men: 9/10
Xiao and Tong: Could never be marketed as twins. Like ever
20, 30, 40 (2004)
Director: Sylvia Chang
Writer: Sylvia Chang
Sylvia Chang – Lily
Rene Liu – Xiang Xiang
Angelica Lee – Xiao Jie
Kate Yeung – Tong Yi
Tony Leung Ka-fai – Jerry Zhang
Anthony Wong – Shi Ge
Richie Jen – Wang
Bolin Chen – Rock musician
Joanne Tseng – Lily’s daughter