Blood of Youth
China, 2016, colour, 2.35:1, 110 mins.
Director: Yang Shupeng 杨树鹏.
Intricate but unconventional crime drama keeps the viewer hooked via a strong cast and technical values.
Zhejiang province, southern China, Aug 2006. At Yuancheng orphanage, teenage brawler Su Ang (Yan Haoqi) is beaten to within an inch of his life by bully Da Gui (Zhang Hao) for standing up for his girlfriend Lin Qiao (Chen Wenqi), a fellow orphan. Later, Lin Qiao takes revenge on Da Gui by luring him up a rickety water tower. Ten years later, in the provincial capital Hangzhou, Su Ang is a super-hacker who directs the police to a skeleton in the woods. He then tips them off about a bank robbery planned by well-known gangster Shen (Zhou Yiwei) but on the day he helps Shen and his gang escape the police stakeout. Su Ang is told by his doctor, Han Yu (Yu Nan), that a growth in his brain is spreading and, if he continues not taking his medicine, he won’t have long to live. Detectives Zhang Jianyu (Zhang Yi) and Da Qiu (Liu Tianzuo) discover the skeleton in the woods is that of a badly beaten woman who was killed 17-18 years ago. Meanwhile, Han Yu’s husband, conductor Li Zhimin (Guo Xiaodong), starts receiving text messages from Lin Qiao (Guo Shutong), a new cellist in his orchestra. She invites him to “play a game” and says she is practising in the rehearsal hall. Su Ang watches them via a hidden camera but midway he’s kidnapped and taken to Shen, who is curious why Su Ang helped his gang escape from the police. (It turns out that Su Ang and Lin Qiao have been planning a “dangerous game” for some time, with Su Ang making it a condition that they never meet once it starts.) After searching police files for missing women between 1993 and 2000, Zhang Jianyu and Da Qiu arrest Cui Dali (Wang Lie), who may have killed his fiancee Liang Sumei (Liu Lu) 23 years ago. Cui Dali almost escapes but is stopped by the sudden intervention of Su Ang. While having a wound treated in hospital, Zhang Jianyu checks up on Su Ang with doctor Han Yun’s help. Later, Shen visits Su Ang at his home, but the latter convinces the former that they can help each other. Meanwhile, Lin Qiao invites Li Zhimin to play a second round in their game; before leaving home, Li Zhimin savagely beats Han Yun, who suspects he’s again having an affaire with a new player. That same night, Su Ang tells Han Yun that he knows exactly what is going on in her private life; scared, she contacts Zhang Jianyu, but he says he cannot arrest Su Ang. However, when Han Yun is kidnapped in the street, Zhang Jianyu starts to find the pieces of the puzzle falling into place.
An unconventional crime drama that keeps the audience dangling for over an hour before starting to reveal how the pieces fall into place, Blood of Youth 少年 doesn’t quite measure up to its lofty ambitions but still manages to remain engrossing, even when the viewer has no clue what the hell is going on. That’s largely thanks to the strong cast, most with juicy roles, plus plenty of likeable black humour (especially by the cops) and plotting which, though initially puzzling, keeps moving forward. It’s another subtly personal take on an established genre by self-trained, Shaanxi-born film-maker Yang Shupeng 杨树鹏, 46, whose three previous films – war drama The Cold Flame 烽火 (2007), village black comedy The Robbers 我的唐朝兄弟 (2009) and, his best to date, genre mash An Inaccurate Memoir 匹夫 (2012) – have all had the same kind of outsider flavour.
The long-spanned, intricate plot starts 10 years ago, with some horrific events at an orphanage, before moving to present-day Hangzhou, where one of the earlier victims, Su Ang, is now a super-hacker playing games both with the police and with a gang of bank robbers led by a serious psycho. Apparently in league with Su Ang on some elaborate plan is Lin Qiao, his girlfriend from the orphanage, now a cellist in an orchestra whose egotistical conductor is married to Su Ang’s doctor. If that’s not enough, Su Ang, who has some kind of brain tumour and is refusing to take his medicine, has led the police to a buried skeleton of an unknown woman that dates back almost 20 years.
In the early going, it seems impossible that the script – co-written with Li Chenxi 李晨曦, from an original story by Lu Wenying 卢文莹 – will ever reconcile all these various strands, which are decorated with details like the doctor’s unhappy marriage to the philandering conductor, the police detectives’ blackly comic double act, the backstory of a murder that may or may not have happened 23 years ago, and issues like Su Ang’s unconventional relationship with Lin Qiao, largely conducted via text messages (popping up on screen). That none of the obscurity becomes irritating says much for the new sophistication in Yang’s direction – as well as the top crew he’s assembled this time from both Hong Kong and China.
Major kudos is due to supervising editor, Hong Kong veteran Zhang Jiahui 张嘉辉 [Cheung Ka-fai], and his Mainland colleague Yan Tingting 闫婷婷, who got an assembly print that reportedly ran four-and-a-half hours down to a rough cut of two-and-a-half and the final cut of just under two. Despite the many characters and strands, and some initial confusion when the modern-day story starts in Hangzhou, there’s little sense of hurry or missing material, with scenes seemingly running their natural length.
In fact, on a technical level the film hums along in a way that Yang’s previous movies haven’t. As well as Zhang, two other Hong Kongers provide sterling work – d.p. Zheng Zhaoqiang 郑兆强 [Cheng Siu-keung], a regular on the films of Du Qifeng 杜琪峰 [Johnnie To], and car-stunt maestro Wu Haitang 吴海棠, both of whom exploit the relatively unfamiliar geography of Hangzhou city to thrilling effect while staying within the bounds of realism. On the Mainland side, art director Lou Pan 娄磐, who’s worked regularly with director Cao Baoping 曹保平 (Einstein and Einstein 狗13, 2013; The Dead End 烈日灼心, 2015), gives the film a cold brilliance in city interiors and a rough scruffiness in rural ones.
However, it’s the ensemble cast that holds interest even when the film is pushing its luck in keeping the audience in the dark. Of the youngsters, singer-actor Ou Hao 欧豪 (The Left Ear 左耳, 2015) is improving slowly but is still too uninflected here, despite being asked to play a pale-faced hacker; and Guo Shutong 郭姝彤, 24, who debuted impressively in high-school drama Yesterday Once More 谁的青春不迷茫 (2016), though suitably mysterious as his accomplice doesn’t get much chance to draw a rounded character. It’s the older actors who really power the drama, led by a drily humorous performance by Zhang Yi 张译 (the humorous undercover in An Inaccurate Memoir) that’s a career defining performance for the goofy-looking, 38-year-old actor, mostly seen in supporting roles. Zhang effectively carries the film, bouncing around all the cast members as the detective who’s not especially smart but does have a stubborn resilience.
As well as with Liu Tianzuo 刘天佐 as his sidekick, Zhang has especially good chemistry with Yu Nan 余男, as the conductor’s doctor wife, who has a much bigger role than her billing would imply and gives the whole movie considerable acting heft with the least effort. As her abusive husband, Guo Xiaodong 郭晓东 is okay but doesn’t quite bring off the character’s Janus personality as required. Among the obvious villains, Zhou Yiwei 周一围 (the cocky blackmailer in Brotherhood of Blades 绣春刀, 2014) is strong as the bank robbers’ leader, bringing a slightly comic edge to a psycho role.
What the screenplay lacks is a major “waah!” moment in the plot’s complex unravelling, one along the lines of that in Cao’s The Dead End, a similarly unconventional crime drama. For all the strengths of the technical package and performances, the film is more a series of incidents than a gradually developing drama with a strong overall arc and sense of layers being peeled away. Both those qualities may have existed in a longer version of the movie.
As well as in Hangzhou, the film shot in Tiantai, also in Zhejiang province, south of Shanghai. The Chinese title simply means “Youth”. On Mainland release during the December crush, it flopped, grossing a puny RMB16 million.
Presented by Shanghai Tencent Pictures Culture Media (CN), Huoerguosi Youth Enlight Pictures (CN), Tianjin 58 Pictures (CN), Spring Net Media Huoerguosi (CN), Zhejiang Youngod Pictures (CN).
Script: Yang Shupeng, Li Chenxi. Original story: Lu Wenying. Photography: Zheng Zhaoqiang [Cheng Siu-keung]. Editing: Zhang Jiahui [Cheung Ka-fai], Yan Tingting. Music: Ren Yajing, Wang Fu, Huang Yuqi. Art direction: Lou Pan. Costumes: Yao Xiaotong. Sound: Liu Jianqing, Zhao Nan, Yang Jiang. Action: Deng Ruihua. Car stunts: Wu Haitang. Visual effects: Yang Fuding (Wonderstar Visual Effects).
Cast: Ou Hao (Su Ang), Zhang Yi (Zhang Jianyu), Guo Xiaodong (Li Zhimin), Liu Tianzuo (Da Qiu, Zhang Jianyu’s sidekick), Yu Nan (Han Yun, Li Zhimin’s wife), Guo Shutong (Lin Qiao), Zhou Yiwei (Shen Jingui), Wang Lie (Cui Dali), Liu Lu (Liang Sumei, Cui Dali’s fiancee), Yan Haoqi (teenage Su Ang), Song Fang (orphanage headmaster), Ma Qian (teacher), Zhang Hao (Da Gui/Big Devil, orphanage bully), Chen Wenqi (teenage Lin Qiao), Xin Zhilei (cellist), Sun Lei (criminal), Chen Qijie (forensic pathologist), Ma Liang (Ma, gangster), Luo Kang (Luo, mad man), Cao Kefan (deputy police chief), Xia Lingye (child Lin Qiao), Jiang Chunliang (child Su Ang).
Release: China, 16 Dec 2016.