China, 2016, colour, 2.35:1, 94 mins.
Director: Zhou Tuoru 周拓如.
Well-cast school-to-real-life love story, from a novel by So Young ‘s author, is at its best in the first half.
New York, Jul 2015. Su Yunjin (Liu Yifei) walks the streets searching for an address. Her mind goes back to Shanghai, in Sep 2007, when she transferred from out-of-town to a top senior high school in the city, despite her family being financially strapped and her father’s health not good. On her first day she bumps into Cheng Zheng (Wu Yifan), an intelligent but arrogant rich kid to whom she takes an instant dislike. Though she’s treated as an enemy by Meng Xue (Li Qin), Cheng Zheng’s childhood sweetheart, she’s befriended by classmates Mo Yuhua (Li Meng), who is from a similar background, and by fattie Song Ming (Hao Shaowen). Su Yunjin stands up to Cheng Zheng in class and as a result he becomes interested in her, offering to help her with her studies. They gradually bond. When she suddenly returns home for her father’s funeral, Cheng Zheng gets upset; but when she returns he promises to leave her alone until after the university entrance exam. Finally, at the post-exam party he asks to dance with her, upsetting Meng Xue. Later, he asks her to become his girlfriend and apply for a university in Beijing, so they can be close to each other. She lets him kiss her, but doesn’t answer his question. Meanwhile, her friend Mo Yuhua finally gets to dance with and kiss the dandyish Zhou Ziyi (Jin Shijia), whom she’s always fancied. A year later, in Sep 2009, Su Yunjin is starting her second year at a Beijing university and has forgotten Cheng Zheng; taking a part-time job in the library, she befriends another student working there, Shen Ju’an (Qiao Renliang), who’s a year above her. Then suddenly Cheng Zheng turns up and insists that the three of them go out together. Shen Ju’an graduates and, as he pursues his career, Su Yunjin doesn’t see him anymore. In Mar 2011 she visits her widowed mother in her hometown and finds she has a new man in her life, Wu (Chu Jian). Then suddenly Cheng Zheng turns up, and asks her to promise to look for a job in Beijing when she graduates. In the event, she can’t find one, and instead accepts an offer in Shanghai. But Cheng Zheng is not so easily put off.
Hewn from the same quarry as So Young 致我们终将逝去的青春 (2013) – following a group of students from schooling into professional life, and adapted from a novel (see left) by the same writer, Guangxi-born Xin Yiwu 辛夷坞 – Never Gone 致青春•原来你还在这里 has several of the same weaknesses, especially a latter half that goes off the boil once the protagonists leave the classroom. But even its best section, the opening half-hour set at senior high school, doesn’t come close to the best of the much more ambitious So Young, which in its first half managed to draw an involving portrait of love, friendship, ambition and broken dreams among a group of students in mid-1990s China. Never Gone‘s ensemble is smaller, its scope much more limited, and its structure more conventional. Generally well cast and technically very smooth, the Zhang Yibai 张一白 production is a solid feature debut by Sichuan-born writer-director Zhou Tuoru 周拓如, then 40, and with its combination of the Xin Yiwu brandname, pretty ex-boybander Wu Yifan 吴亦凡 [Kris Wu] and ethereal actress Liu Yifei 刘亦菲 managed to hawl in a nice RMB337 million in summer 2016.
Beginning only a decade ago, and running up to the present, Never Gone is aimed more at Gen-90ers, and lacks the period attraction that So Young (aimed at Gen-80ers) had in its early stages. Replacing it is a plot in which the girl-from-the-sticks initially kisses off the arrogant rich kid when she graduates to university – even though he doesn’t fully realise it – and which involves him strenuously re-courting her during college and afterwards. In that respect, the film makes good use of the often blank appeal of actress Liu, whose character takes some persuading. The best that can be said about Wu is that he’s well cast as the arrogant fuerdai 富二代 (son of a wealthy businessman), and even though the couple’s relationship never really convinces he’s well showcased here to appeal to his female fanbase.
The best performance actually comes from actress Li Meng 李梦 (so good in Young Love Lost 少年巴比伦, 2015) as the girl’s best friend, even though her character’s plotline is thinly developed. Among the rest of the cast, late singer-actor Qiao Renliang 乔任梁 (in his penultimate screen appearance) is okay as a passing friendship at university but like everyone suffers from the script’s wobbly second half that jumps from one manufactured crisis to another as characters are shuffled around in TVD style.
The 2007 novel’s title was 原来你还在这里 (“So, You’re Still Here”); the film adds 致青春 (“To Youth”) before it, evoking direct comparisons with So Young. Just as the earlier film’s source novel was later adapted into a TV drama series (So Young 致青春, 2016), that of Never Gone has also received the TVD treatment, with a 36-episode series (see poster, left) to be broadcast in 2018. Starring actress Yang Zishan 杨子姗 and actor Han Dongjun 韩东君, it’s directed by Hong Kong-born TVD veteran Lin Yufen 林玉芬 (Love O2O 微微一笑很倾城, 2016; Eternal Love 三生三世十里桃花, 2017).
Presented by Shanghai Ruyi Film Production (CN), Beijing Weiying Technology (CN), Huaxia Film Distribution (CN), Shandong Jiabo Culture Development (CN), Dongyang Le Flower Film & TV (CN), True Love (Shanghai) Media (CN). Produced by Shanghai Ruyi Film Production (CN).
Script: Zhou Tuoru, Chen Wenjuan, Pan Yu. Novel: Xin Yiwu. Photography: Zhao Xiaoshi, Li Qiang. Editing: Yu Hongchao, Zhang Weili. Music: Mizutani Hiromi. Music direction: Wang Zhengliang. Art direction: Lu Tianhang. Styling: Li Yikai. Styling advice: Wen Nianzhong [Man Lim-chung]. Executive direction: Liu Xiao.
Cast: Wu Yifan [Kris Wu] (Cheng Zheng), Liu Yifei (Su Yunjin), Jin Shijia (Zhou Ziyi), Li Qin (Meng Xue), Li Meng (Mo Yuhua), Hao Shaowen (Song Ming), Chen Ran (Zhang Yue, Cheng Zheng’s elder sister), Qiao Renliang (Shen Ju’an), Liu Chenxia (Su Yunjin’s mother), Chu Jian (Wu), Lu Jun (Sun, teacher), Zhou Hong (librarian).
Release: China, 8 Jul 2016.