It is only fitting that Feng Xiaogang’s Youth opened his fellow Chinese helmer Jia Zhangke’s Pingyao International Film Festival. Charting the fortunes of a group of young men and women as they navigate social upheavals in China in the 1970s and 1980s, Feng’s latest outing is similar in spirit to Jia’s equally epoch-spanning Platform, an emotion-packed historical drama shaped by its characters’ understated emotions, its directors’ realist approach and its producers’ modest means.
But Feng has always been a blockbuster man, and his previous panoramas on contemporary Chinese history (Aftershock, Back to 1942) were heart-wrenching epics. Based on novelist Yan Geling’s adaptation of her own novel – which in turn was based on the writer’s 13-year spell as a dancer in an “arts troupe” in the Chinese army – Youth is a whirl of grand, dramatic gestures.
More bitter than sweet.
The film boasts a narrative punctuated by landmark historical events, Luo Pan’s swirling camerawork capturing astonishing landscapes and impressively choreographed set pieces, and Zhao Lin’s relentlessly sweeping musical score. And then there’s the cast with their pretty faces and svelte bodies — qualities Feng rarely hesitates to highlight throughout the film, either in action (when his characters rehearse in tight leotards or relax by the pool in swimwear) or in conversation (there’s a scene, for example, when the young female performers make barbed jokes about a piece of padded underwear on the washing line).
This explicit display of sensuality might be a calculated ploy to attract the young demographic, but the emphasis on physicality also defies China’s officially sanctioned representation of the People’s Liberation Army as existing well above basic human desires. Having worked in a military arts troupe himself during his youth, Feng seeks to remind modern audiences how those young soldiers from a seemingly more dogmatic era could be just as selfish, sexual, superficial and human as anyone their age in the here and now.
Youth was originally expected to follow its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival with a colossal rollout across China, but its producers pulled the film from the release schedule just a few days before its original opening day (both on its home turf and in the U.S.) of Sept. 29. Speculation has since been rife about the real reasons behind this last-minute postponement. Adding to the confusion, China’s Film Bureau has since claimed they have already approved of Youth‘s release at overseas festivals and in local cinemas.
The film finally received its proper domestic premiere at Pingyao on Oct. 28, and producer Jerry Ye told the press there that his team is “evaluating” the film’s possible Chinese release date. One thing’s for certain: The commercially released cut — that is, the one which unspooled at Pingyao — will be 12 minutes shorter than the Toronto version, a move Feng described as an effort to “sharpen the film’s rhythm.” This would certainly help sell a sepia-tinged film about the 1970s to China’s impatient millennials.
And Chinese millennials should be able to identify with Youth‘s characters — at least in the first half, when the film’s intertwined relationships closely resemble those featured in a 21st century high school rom com. The film’s two protagonists are Liu Feng (Huang Xuan), a morally impeccable dancer always ready to sacrifice his own well-being for his comrades, and new recruit He Xiaoping (Miao Miao), who is chastised for her provincial demeanor and politically incorrect family background.
Both the faultless Feng and the stained Xiaoping are outcasts: the troupe’s clique is led by the accordion player Hao Suwen (Li Xiaofeng), the arrogant daughter of high-ranked cadres; Lin Dingding (Yang Caiyu), whose aim in life is to use her looks to marry well; and Xiao Suizi (Zhong Chuxi), a nondescript dancer who both wants to fit in with the pack but is also sympathetic toward Feng and Xiaoping. Throw in some boys in the shape of a clueless jock (Wang Tianchen) and a wily tattletale (Zhang Renbo), and Youth might look like the Chinese military response to Mean Girls.
While very much sheltered by the turmoil unfolding outside the camp — these pampered soldiers are shown catching a pig in the middle of a Red Guards procession, and attending to small blisters on their feet as the tanks roll by in a military drill — the youngsters’ cosseted existence finally unravels because of a seemingly trivial, personal matter.
Shaken by the sound of a Taiwanese pop ballad, Liu Feng makes a bungled confession of love — an attempt which leads to a mistimed embrace, the girl’s report to the political commissar, the boy’s reassignment to a border outpost and his horrific experience of war (fighting against Vietnam in March 1979) at its goriest. At around the same time, Xiaoping’s embittered refusal to stand in for an injured dancer also leads to her dismissal from the troupe, and her painful rite of passage as a nurse in the war-ravaged casualty ward on the Sino-Vietnamese frontline.
Huang’s and Miao’s nuanced turns vividly convey their characters’ disorientation and anguish — emotions which run all the way into the film’s gritty 1990s-set epilogue, when their terrifying struggles in life are revealed in a meeting between their filthy rich and thoroughly apolitical former comrades. With this, Feng strikes a surprisingly understated note to the bombast that went before — a sign of how Youth, for all its technical prowess, is perhaps the director’s most melancholy and pessimistic film about Chinese society yet.
Production companies: Huayi Brothers Pictures, Zhejiang Dongyang Mayla Media, iQiyi Motion Pictures, Beijing Sparkle Roll Media, Beijing Jingxi Culture & Tourism, August First Film Studio
Distributor (U.S.): China Lion
Cast: Huang Xuan, Miao Miao, Zhong Chuxi, Yang Caiyu, Li Xiaofeng
Director: Feng Xiaogang
Screenwriter: Yan Geling, based on her novel ‘You Touched Me’
Producers: Wang Zhonglei, Wang Zhongjun, Gong Yu, Song Ge, Qi Jianhong, Zhang Fangjun
Executive producers: Feng Xiaogang, with Jerry Ye, Hu Xiaofeng, Ya Ning, Tan Zuowei, Du Yang, Yan Pin
Director of photography: Luo Pan
Production designer: Shi Haiying
Music: Zhao Lin
Editing: Zhang Qi
Sales: IM Global