China has no shortage of novels waiting for a turn at film – especially youth-themed ones. The Left Ear by Rao Xueman was a high school favorite of young adults born in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
But some stories are such products of their time and place that they endure better as memories. For fans who grew up with Rao’s work, seeing the recent film adaptation of The Left Ear was like watching a steamroller crush their childhoods.
The innocent and beautiful Li Er is deaf in her left ear. In spite of her disability, she is a warm girl who always wears a sweet smile. One day she meets a girl named Bala who couldn’t be any more different. In Bala, she discovers her longing for a life of rebellion.
Li loses her favorite boy Xu Yi to her outgoing competitor, but Bala’s true love is the cool and handsome Zhang Yang. Their complicated stories are twisted by an equally complicated relationship between their parents.
The characters come to a tragic end after experiencing both cruelty and love. It’s the opposite of what many in China expect – that youth should be the best and brightest period in life.
While such complicated love stories were all the rage a decade ago, today they come off as stale. That debut director Alec Su shot The Left Ear to look like a TVB series from the 1990s did little to help that impression.
But even without that stumble, Su faced an impossible task: to make a dated story seem better than when it was first written.
Su was a member of the band Little Tigers in the 1980s and later went into acting. Fans of the book said they had high hopes for his work, and that older and more experienced directors “can’t understand the life and feelings of their generation.”
If one looks deep between the incoherent cuts they can spot The Left Ear’s core, a sad cliché about “the truth of love” that had its heyday in 2000.
Nevertheless, the The Left Ear took in 31 million yuan during its first week at the box office – more than the Fast and Furious 7 earned in 17 days.
In spite of those impressive numbers, fan response has been pure vitriol. The most cynical writers on Douban attributed the film’s box office take entirely to a cult of personality surrounding its new actors and actresses.
Beyond the film, Rao is still one of China’s most popular authors of young adult fiction. She began writing and publishing at the age of 14 and has published more than 50 novels during her 27-year-long career.
Uniform Skirt, Li Ge, Hourglass and The Left Ear remain her most popular.