Jian Jian is angry with her brothers for leaving and refuses to return to see them off. Hai Chao makes her see reason and she doesn’t cut them off completely, but she grows up and the passage of time erodes all relationships.
Ming Yue sobs across the table from Ling Xiao. He looks uncomfortable and glances around at the fellow coffee shop patrons who are all staring at them. Ming Yue apologizes for making a scene but can’t help but cry. Ling Xiao asks her to look after Jian Jian now that both he and Zi Qiu will be gone. She promises to send daily updates so that he’ll feel like he’s still here.
Hai Chao fusses over Ling Xiao, saying that he’ll express mail food to him whenever he wants it, as they pack his bags into the car. He’s the only one there to see him and He Ping off to the airport. Ling Xiao glances up at the rooftop of the apartment building before he gets into the car, but there’s no one there. Hai Chao asks him not to blame the others for not coming.
Zi Qiu stands up from where he was hiding on the rooftop and watches as the car drives away.
At night, Hai Chao calls Jian Jian in a hushed voice, asking if she’ll come home. Zi Qiu leaves tomorrow. Zi Qiu eavesdrops at his bedroom door, but it doesn’t sound good. Hai Chao sighs. Does Jian Jian really plan on cutting ties with both her brothers?
The next morning is like a repeat of the one before, as Hai Chao fusses over Zi Qiu, telling him to call whenever he feels like eating food from home, and He Ping reminds him of the time. Zi Qiu sticks his head out the window as the car drives away, trying to wave and look at his father for as long as he can.
Jian Jian hangs out by herself at a park and looks up at the sky as a plane flies by.
On the first day of the new school year, Jian Jian and Ming Yue leap into each other’s arms with a hug. Jian Jian spent the whole summer vacation at her grandmother’s house in the countryside.
Ming Yue asks if Jian Jian has called her brothers yet. Jian Jian says no. Ming Yue asks if she really plans on cutting all ties with her brothers. Jian Jian says no to that, too, but says that Ming Yue can call them if she wants.
Ming Yue says that Jian Jian is being naive when it comes to her brothers and starts defending Ling Xiao; he had no choice. Jian Jian turns to her with a glare. Ming Yue doesn’t seem to notice Jian Jian’s sudden change in mood, and starts talking about how blood is thicker than water and Ling Xiao has a little sister there, too. Jian Jian kicks her desk, startling her classmates, then grabs her backpack and storms out. She brushes roughly past Tang Can on her way out. Tang Can glances back at her curiously, but then is swarmed by her classmates.
Her classmates ask her for updates on her movie. The lead actress still hasn’t been chosen yet, but Tang Can’s classmates are confident she will be the one. Tang Can asks someone what happened with Jian Jian. No one knows, but they mention how Jian Jian kicked a table in front of Ming Yue. Tang Can looks curious.
Ming Yue is unable to find Jian Jian on campus, and Jian Jian doesn’t come back to class. Ming Yue broods during class. At one point, she turns to look at Jian Jian’s empty desk. Tang Can sees her looking, and looks, too.
Jian Jian skips school and takes the bus, tapping for three people’s fare out of habit before realizing what she’s done. She cries and then naps on the bus, nostalgic for her brothers. The bus driver wakes her up at the end of his shift. She’s already ridden the whole route three times.
On the way home, one of Jian Jian’s neighbors, Wang Dou Dou, skips up and asks about her brothers going abroad. She calls them both heartless, meaning to be on Jian Jian’s side, but Jian Jian gets angry at her and threatens to beat her up. Her brothers didn’t ditch the family. They’ll be back after they graduate from college.
They run into Auntie Qian and Dou Dou’s mom in the courtyard. In front of the adults, Jian Jian forces a smile. Dou Dou’s mother also brings up the topic of her brothers “returning” to their families and asks if they still call. Jian Jian says they do. Dou Dou’s mother takes it as a sign that the boys still have a conscience, but Auntie Qian says the true test will be after they graduate from college. If they still come back to visit, then they’ll truly have a conscience. Uncomfortable with the conversation, Jian Jian makes an excuse to go home.
Hai Chao is on the phone with Ling Xiao when Jian Jian gets home. He tells Ling Xiao to stay on so Jian Jian can chat with him, but Jian Jian goes to the bathroom instead. When she comes back out, she pretends there was never a phone call.
Hai Chao sternly lectures her, asking what she wants to do about her brothers. She needs to appreciate the relationship they had. But Jian Jian acts blase.
Hai Chao sits across from her, and Jian Jian says that there are a lot of things she wants. She wants the neighbors to stop making fun of her father for raising children who don’t appreciate him. She wants her classmates to stop bringing up the fact that she used have brothers. She wants to get used to be an only child again. She wants her life to be more peaceful.
Jian Jian says she’s not angry. She understands why Ling Xiao had to go to Singapore and why Zi Qiu went abroad. She understands that they’re not really family. If she or her father were to be hospitalized, they wouldn’t even be allowed to sign their names on their hospital forms.
Hai Chao looks heartbroken. Does that mean all the years she called them “brothers” don’t count anymore?
Jian Jian avoids looking him in the eye and looks on the verge of tears as she says that she may have called them “brothers,” but they aren’t her real brothers. She understands that she was too naive before, to think they could be a real family. If good feelings were enough to make a family, then every kid who played house would be a family.
Hai Chao tells Jian Jian that her brothers would be hurt if they heard her words. To say that they weren’t her real brothers would be looking down how much they cared for her. They treated her better than most biological brothers would treat their sisters.
Hai Chao asks Jian Jian to be honest: does she think Zi Qiu going abroad for college is a good thing? Jian Jian grudgingly admits that it is a good thing. He asks Jian Jian about Ling Xiao, too. Does she think that he wanted to go to Singapore? Chen Ting is his biological mother. He had no choice.
Hai Chao tells Jian Jian that he and her mother made a family. One day she will also make her own family and leave him. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t a family. It doesn’t mean that they don’t care about each other. A real family’s hearts will always be together.
Jian Jian cries and says, “But I don’t want them to leave.”
Jian Jian tells us in a voice over that when we’re younger, we never think about parting. Time always feels very slow. We’re always wondering when we will grow up, not realizing that time is always leading us with an invisible hand. Time is silent, but never stops. One year turns into another. Everything seems boring and the same, yet secretly things are changing.
Jian Jian sketches a classmate in class while pretending to follow along in a lecture. Tang Can arrives in the middle of class, crying, and slips into her seat. Ming Yue looks at her with concern, then makes eye contact with Jian Jian, who shrugs.
Jian Jian celebrates the new year with Hai Chao and He Ping and asks them for her red envelopes. The phone rings and Hai Chao goes to pick up. Jian Jian’s cell phone beeps with a notification. She scurries happily into her room to video chat with her brothers.
She calls He Ping over to say hi. He comments on how they both look skinnier before getting called away by his own phone calls. Zi Qiu’s video keeps freezing because his signal isn’t good. He ends up hanging up, leaving Jian Jian and Ling Xiao alone to chat.
Jian Jian asks Ling Xiao why he’s just sitting there smiling at her. He responds that he’s just happy to see her. She thanks him for the pastries he sent home the other day. He says that if she’s really grateful, she’ll act cute for him. Jian Jian pretends to be annoyed, but seems willing to do it, except then Mei Yang appears on screen, asking her brother to come back and eat.
Mei Yang spots Jian Jian and asks what she’s doing with her brother. “He’s my brother, not yours!” she says and sticks her tongue out. Ling Xiao is forced to accommodate her. Jian Jian forces a smile and says it’s okay, then hangs up.
Narrator Jian Jian tells us that they did their best to fight against time and distance. In 2012, she was accepted in her local university’s sculpting department. Ling Xiao had taken a leave of absence from college to care for his mother. Zi Qiu became busier than ever.
Jian Jian enters campus on move-in day. She gets a call from her father, checking in on her, then gets a text from Ling Xiao, congratulating her on her first day of school and telling her to not fall in love. She starts drafting a text saying that she’s eighteen now and old enough to date, then asking about his mom, but then decides to delete it all. Instead, she sends a short response, saying thanks and that she would obey.
She goes back to her text messages and scrolls down to her conversation with Zi Qiu, which has fallen to the bottom. Their texts have been sporadic, but she puts away her phone and keeps walking without sending anything.
Narrator Jian Jian returns. Everything people say about college being relaxing is a lie. In college, she became busier than ever between classes and homework. Time also seemed to be in a rush and carried them along. In the blink of an eye, two years passed.
In Jian Jian’s third year of undergrad, Ling Xiao was also in his third year, having returned to school. Zi Qiu had graduated, but he didn’t come back.
An older Jian Jian checks her phone in the art studio, then puts it back down, disappointed.
Jian Jian eats in the noodle shop while her father video chats with Zi Qiu on the phone. Zi Qiu has decided to attend culinary school and become a pastry chef. Hai Chao asks why. Zi Qiu explains that in order to find a job with his major, he would have to go to one of China’s big cities, but he wants to return home and be near them. He thinks being a pastry chef will give him more opportunities. He apologizes to Hai Chao for not coming back immediately after graduating.
Hai Chao says that he’s free to learn what he wants, but he doesn’t look happy. Zi Qiu asks why Jian Jian is so silent. Is she angry? Hai Chao turns the phone to Jian Jian, who forces a smile and says that she’s happy he’s learning what he wants. She claims that she’s in a rush to finish eating and head back to school and makes Hai Chao turn the phone away.
The moment the camera is back on Hai Chao, Jian Jian drops her smile. Hai Chao makes excuses for Jian Jian, saying that she’s been extremely busy lately.
After hanging up, Hai Chao tries to say something to Jian Jian, but she jumps up, saying she needs to hurry back to school, and runs off.
Narrator Jian Jian tells us that one day, she realized that being apart is the most normal state in life. Like dandelion seeds, people grow where they land, with new friends and new dreams.
Jian Jian is sculpting when she gets a text from Zi Qiu with a photo of a cake he made. She starts writing up a long, chatty text, but then deletes it all and sends a short compliment instead.
Narrator Jian Jian: “Little by little, no matter how much we care about each other, we still become strangers who have nothing to say to each other.”
Jian Jian is eating dinner one night with He Ping when she gets a video call from Ling Xiao. She hands the phone to He Ping, saying he should pick up. She knows he misses his son.
Ling Xiao seems surprised to see He Ping pick up. He Ping says that he and Jian Jian are eating dinner and points the camera at her, but she turns it back around to face him. He Ping makes some small talk asking after Ling Xiao’s mother and sister. He tells Ling Xiao that Hai Chao has been annoyed by Jian Jian and how she’s refused to leave the house all of summer break.
Ling Xiao asks after Jian Jian, so He Ping pushes the phone into her hands. Ling Xiao asks if she’s secretly found a boyfriend. Jian Jian responds she wouldn’t even know where to find one. Ling Xiao reminds her that she’s still young and should focus on her studies. She says she knows, then makes He Ping take the phone back.
But He Ping and Ling Xiao don’t have much more to say to each other, so they hang up. He Ping asks Jian Jian what she normally talks to Ling Xiao about. Jian Jian says they don’t usually talk about much — it’s mostly to just make sure that they’re still alive.
He Ping laughs because that’s how he approaches the conversations too. He marvels at how Hai Chao manages to find so much to talk about with Ling Xiao and Zi Qiu when they call. He seems like the mother of the family. Jian Jian agrees wholeheartedly.
Jian Jian and Ming Yue are eating watermelon and watching a video together when Ming Yue gets a text. She hides her phone from Jian Jian, lying and saying that it’s her mother when Jian Jian asks who it is. It’s actually Ling Xiao, asking for a photo. Ming Yue tries to sneakily take a photo of Jian Jian, but Jian Jian catches her and gets upset that Ming Yue is taking such an ugly photo. Ming Yue reassures her that she looks cute.
Ling Xiao sends Ming Yue a quick response, saying, “Cute.” Ming Yue laughs to herself. Jian Jian catches her laughing and suspiciously asks if she’s dating someone. Ming Yue denies it; she would never be able to keep it a secret from Jian Jian anyway. She asks Jian Jian if she’s dating anyone, but it’s the same story: Jian Jian would never be able to hide it from Ming Yue.
Ming Yue warns Jian Jian not to fall in love. Declarations of love are unreliable. She should focus on her career. Jian Jian thinks there’s no point in dating anyway. After graduation, she plans on opening a studio with an older classmate she’s particularly close to, Du Juan.
Jian Jian and Du Juan (Vian Wang) set up their studio while Jian Jian narrates that she and Du Juan opened their studio, Time Gap, after graduation, like they planned. She sometimes feels like she’s trapped in a gap in time, working without purpose. She can’t become an artist in an instant, but she’s still young so she can afford to spend some time chasing her dreams.
Jian Jian shows Hai Chao and He Ping photos of her new studio over dinner. He Ping sighs that Ling Xiao should be returning home at the same time that Jian Jian is graduating, but he received a call from Ling Xiao earlier that day. The hospital he’s interning at wants him to stay on as a full-time doctor.
The mood at the table abruptly changes. “So… he’s not coming back?” Jian Jian asks. Hai Chao is also confused. Hadn’t Ling Xiao always said that he wanted to come back?
He Ping says that he didn’t get many details. It sounded like his mother wouldn’t let him leave her side. Chen Ting already hired a caretaker to help out around the house and accompany her to doctor’s visits. It’s clear to He Ping that she’s trying to trap her son.
Jian Jian sketches by the shore while on the phone with Ling Xiao. Ling Xiao tells her that his mother won’t let him leave, so he plans on staying for a couple of years before coming back. By then, his sister will be old enough to care for their mother. Jian Jian doesn’t say anything except, “Oh.”
Ling Xiao says her name and she jumps, then quickly responds that she’s still here. He asks if they can video call for a moment — he wants to see her face — but she lies and says that she’s with some classmates and it would be inconvenient, then hangs up.
Narrator Jian Jian: “The dreams we chase for so long are so shiny, but unattainable.” They’re on one side of life, but on this side of life are the things that adults need in order to survive: food, air, the silent tears we cry at night. Every person is busy living their own life. All people and relationships disappear with the passing of time, until you don’t even think about them anymore. All that’s left are beautiful memories and well wishes during holidays.
Time passes for Jian Jian. She works long days and late nights at the studio with her partners and sends and receives texts to and from Zi Qiu and Ling Xiao on holidays and birthdays.
Narrator Jian Jian: “We’re like three small planets that meet briefly before continuing on our long orbits.” She understands now. People who come back will always come back, and those who don’t aren’t worth waiting for.
Jian Jian and Ming Yue are hanging out at an outdoor cafe when Tang Can walks up. They each embrace her tearfully.
In the summer of 2018, Tang Can came back after not being able to make it in Beijing. With her father’s permission, Jian Jian rented an apartment closer to her studio with Tang Can and Ming Yue as roommates. They started living together and depending on each other for survival.
From this gap in time, Jian Jian looked back for a moment and realized how far she’d come along this long road that looked like it had no end. She was suddenly 25.
This episode was just one long montage, but I am a sucker for montages like these in slice-of-life dramas. This one was so well-crafted, with exactly the right outtakes and small moments to paint a very full picture of how Jian Jian and her relationships have evolved over the course of nearly ten years.
I really, really love how we see the slow drifting into “strangerhood” of Jian Jian’s relationships with her brothers. It starts with the initial video calls when you realize you have nothing to talk about, and then the calls get fewer and farther between, you start making fake excuses to avoid contact, and eventually you only ever reach out on holidays and birthdays. I think this deterioration of the relationship is what makes it most clear that Jian Jian’s relationship with her brothers has changed to not be so brotherly anymore. It feels like a rite of passage into adulthood, to experience that kind of evolution in relationship with the friends you were once closest to as children or teenagers. But also it’s a sign of that — friendship.
The way that even He Ping struggled to find something to say to Ling Xiao really hit home for me, because that’s how I feel about my relationship with my own mother. We check in to make sure we’re still alive, but outside of that, it can be a struggle to find something to talk about. Some people have the type of parent-child relationship where you share everything with your parent, but others don’t. I don’t think it makes the relationship any more or less meaningful. It’s just different.
I’m excited to see Jian Jian and co. tackle their mid-twenties. Quarter-life crisis, here we go.