Movie Review: Youth (芳华)

Thanks to the resurgence of nationalism around the world, we’ve been seeing a number of hyperpatriotic films of late. Unfortunately, that trend seems to be taking hold in this region too, as some South Korean, Japanese and mainland Chinese directors have jumped on the bandwagon. The Chinese film, YOUTH, also gets into some nostalgic flag waving, but thankfully the story includes some less than rose-coloured scenes as well.

Told from the perspective of Suizi (Zhong Chuxi/钟楚曦), YOUTH follows the lives and loves of a group of young dancers who belong to a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) cultural troupe located in China’s southwest region during the Cultural Revolution and up to the post-Deng 1990s. The story begins with the arrival of He Xiaoping (Miao Miao/苗苗) from Beijing to the army base. Although Xiaoping’s father has been sent to a re-education camp, she was recruited into the troupe because of her dancing ability. Even so, once there, it’s clear to everyone including Xiaoping that even in this supposedly classless utopia, she is at the bottom of the pecking order. Fortunately for her, she has an ally in the troupe’s lead dancer, Liu Feng (Huang Xuan/黃軒), a young man whose altruistic behaviour has earned him the nickname of “the living Lei Feng”, the PLA soldier and Chinese communist legend who was known for his selflessness and modesty.

Time passes, Mao dies and the country mourns. The fall of the Gang of Four and the end of the Cultural Revolution affect the young people as foreign imports begin to creep into the country. While some of the troupe members are eager to latch on to this new consumerism, some of the old ways linger on, which Liu Feng discovers when he pursues a fellow dancer who is above his station in life. Heartbroken, he decides to leave the troupe and take up combat duty in the Sino-Vietnamese war. Xiaoping feels she, too, needs to up her service to her country and she gets reassigned as a nurse at a battalion field hospital. Both characters throw themselves into their new roles and the war has a profound effect on them, but when they emerge on the other side, they discover that the Reform-era China has no place for either of them.

YOUTH is based on Chinese author Yan Geling (严歌苓)’s semi-autobiographical novel so she certainly knows this subject well. Yan was a member of a PLA dance troupe in the 1970s in Tibet. Later, she served as a journalist in the Sino-Vietnamese War, a job taken on by Suizi in the film. While I’m sure that PLA dancers did live a charmed life, younger audiences may not realise that this was a well-constructed propaganda bubble that shielded them from the hardships of the Cultural Revolution that the majority of the population had to endure during that time. Director Feng Xiaogang/冯小刚 (winner of last year’s Golden Horse for Best Director for the film, I AM NOT MADAME BOVARY/我不是潘金莲) is often referred to as China’s Steven Spielberg for his 20-plus years of success at making both gripping epics and light romcoms. Certainly, the Spielberg influence is evident here as the scenes at the dance troupe’s base evoke nostalgia for a much simpler time while the battlefield scenes are respectfully reminiscent of the opening sequence of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.

The film premiered last September in Toronto and played in China for a few days before the distributor pulled it from the cinemas, reportedly under pressure from authorities who may have been nervous about the film competing for the nation’s attention at a time when President Xi Jinping was consolidating his power at the National Party Congress. Alternatively, it is thought that the film’s closing act may have riled up the country’s war veterans who have been quite vocal of late over how they have been treated since that time. Whichever the reason, the film is now in the cinemas there and has reportedly taken in US$220 million at the box office so far.

All in all, YOUTH is a very well made film, with excellent cinematography, a skillful use of colour, and good acting performances all around. For me, the film gained points with its jarring transition from the idyllic life on the army base to the brutally bloody war. It lost points, however, with its third act, which seemed tacked on as an afterthought and had a less than satisfying ending.

Certainly go see it if you have a chance. There are far worse films playing in the cinemas right now.

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live in RTHK Radio 4’s studio on Thursday, January 25th at 8:30 am HK time!

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