China, 2018, colour/b&w, 2.35:1, 138 mins.
Director: Li Fangfang 李芳芳.
Long-delayed, long-limbed melodrama of principled youth and the penalties paid is a considerable undertaking, despite flaws.
Beijing, 2012. After appearing to deliberately capsize a campaign pitch to a major client, powdered-milk manufacturer Yijia, advertising executive Zhang Guoguo (Zhang Zhen) is harangued by the agency’s head, Robert (Han Tongsheng), and leaves a month later. After three months he’s set up his own agency, Cell, and already has Yijia among his clients. Beijing, 1962, August. An orphan from a village in Yunnan, Chen Peng (Huang Xiaoming), 22, is a bright engineering student at Qinghua [Tsinghua] University who’s been earmarked for an important job after graduation. His girlfriend is Wang Minjia (Zhang Ziyi), an idealistic young Communist and onetime classmate who works in the dispensing pharmacy at No. 9 People’s Hospital. Their mutual friend is another former classmate, Li Xiang (Tie Zheng), who’s a young doctor in the same hospital and who has idealistically volunteered for work in the border regions. All three admire their former teacher Xu Bochang (Wang Xin), who’s relentlessly bullied by his wife, onetime classmate Liu Shufen (Zheng Zheng). Without telling Chen Peng, Wang Minjia and Li Xiang write an anonymous letter to Liu Shufen castigating her for her behaviour – which only makes things worse between the couple. Meanwhile, Chen Peng sees Wang Minjia and Li Xiang together one day and misreads the situation. After originally deciding not to accept the job offered him, as he wanted to look after Wang Minjia, he now changes his mind. Kunming, Yunnan province, 1938, autumn. A new batch of students arrive at National Southwestern Associated University, a newly built college founded the previous year by Qinghua University, Beijing University and Nankai University to cater for students evacuated south following the Japanese invasion. News arrives of Germany’s invasion of Poland – signalling the start of WW2 – plus the bombing of Chongqing by the Japanese. Shen Guangyao (Wang Lihong), a student from a well-off Cantonese family, wants to join a US Air Force training school but is dissuaded by his mother (Mi Xue) when she visits him. Beijing, 1923, winter. Qinghua College student Wu Linglan (Chen Chusheng) fails his exams despite getting good marks in English and Chinese. He is inspired by college head Mei Yiqi (Zu Feng) and a 1924 visit by Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore to remain true to his ideals. While later teaching at National Southwestern in Kunming, he in turn inspires Shen Guangyao to join up in the US Air Force and fight the Japanese. As time passes, all characters find their lives deeply affected by events: Zhang Guoguo struggles with his conscience and finds redemption in helping a group of prematurely born quadruplets have a future in life; Wang Minjia takes the fall for the anonymous letter to the teacher’s wife; Chen Peng comes to her rescue afterwards; and Shen Guangyao, inspired by Wu Linglan’s teaching, goes against his family’s wishes and joins the US Air Force to fight the Japanese.
It’s been a long wait – almost 10 years – for the second film by novelist-turned-director Li Fangfang 李芳芳 to finally appear, but it’s been worth it. Unlike her impressive debut, Heaven Eternal, Earth Everlasting 天长地久 (2009), it’s an original script rather than an adaptation of another writer’s novel, but the look, feel and structure are very similar – a long-limbed melodrama, here painted on an even bigger canvas and with an even more metaphysical, non-linear approach. Following a small group of “everyday heroes” in separate (but finally interlinked) stories from the 1920s to the present day, Forever Young 无问西东 is strongly cast, gorgeously mounted and not a minute too long across its two-hours-plus running time.
In fact, a movie of this scope and ambition would have benefited from more running time to flesh out some of its supporting characters. As it is, and despite some weaknesses, it’s still an advance on Heaven and deserves an extra point for its sheer ambition: at a time when much Mainland cinema has size but no imagination, Li has come up with a film that tries an unformulaic approach to formulaic material. With word of mouth apparently beating off initially negative online criticism, it’s been rewarded with rosy box office that’s kept it in the top ten for the past three weeks and looks like finishing close to RMB700 million.
That’s a massive commercial leap by Li after the blah box office for Heaven (RMB13 million) when it was released in the Mainland in summer 2010, after a change of Chinese title to 80’后 (“Gen ’80”) that positioned it as an ode to the aspirational movers and shakers who were then so much in vogue. But Forever Young‘s success is also a tribute to the film itself, which was actually shot over five years ago (Apr-Dec 2012) and then disappeared from view until a trailer finally appeared in late Jun 2017. (In the meantime, two other Mainland films came out with the English title Forever Young.) The official reason given by Li was her painstaking approach to postproduction, though the film is rumoured to have existed in an original cut of some 150 minutes.
Whatever the cause for the long delay in its release, the final 138-minute version is still a substantial undertaking. The lack of development in some subsidiary characters is sometimes frustrating but actually fits the movie’s broad-brush, metaphysical approach, which leaves much to the viewer’s imagination as it focuses more on the protagonists’ spiritual progress rather than just strict narrative. The film was originally intended as a celebration of the centenary of one of China’s top academic institutions, Beijing-based Qinghua [Tsinghua] University, founded in 1911 and currently ranked as the world’s top engineering and computer-science school. Though the opening shot is of a building in its old campus, and the closing credits pay tribute to many of its real-life denizens, the university now forms only the background to a more general story of how youthful ideals are pursued (and finally crushed) across the years by war, politics and personal betrayal – a theme that Li manages to transform into inspirational cinema for the present by dramatic sleight-of-hand.
The first hour sets up four separate stories of roughly a quarter-hour each that are then intercut during the second half as they develop, finally revealing connections between some of the characters across the years. The opening segment, set in present-day Beijing, introduces an ambitious, manipulative ad-agency executive, played by Taiwan’s Zhang Zhen 张震; the next, set 50 years earlier in pre-Cultural Revolution Bejing, sets up a trio of idealistic young friends (Mainland actors Zhang Ziyi 章子怡, Huang Xiaoming 黄晓明, Tie Zheng 铁政) who end up split by love and ambition; the third, set in southerly Yunnan province during the early days of the Sino-Japanese War in 1938, follows a student (Chinese American actor-singer Wang Lihong 王力宏) who wants to join the US Air Force against the wishes of his well-heeled Guangdong family; and the fourth, set in Beijing in 1923, backgrounds a Qinghua student (Mainland singer Chen Chusheng 陈楚生) who’s influenced by a visit by Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore and his philosophy of being true to oneself. Later as a teacher, the last goes on to influence the student in Yunnan, who then decides to join up as a flyer; manwhile, in pre-CR Beijing, the trio of friends are destroyed by Maoist politics; and in the present, the advertising executive struggles with his conscience and finally redeems his careerism.
As it cross-cuts between the developing stories, the film’s complex second hour sometimes takes on more than it can handle within the time available and, as in Heaven, Li’s screenplay is sometimes a little too neat and clever for its own good. But, as too in Heaven, the packaging is smoothly seductive, with gorgeous, highly mobile photography by ace d.p. Cao Yu 曹郁 (City of Life and Death 南京！南京！, 2009; Driverless 无人驾驶, 2010) that slides from earthy Yunnan colours through idealistic youthful light-play to summer-winter-autumnal hues, plus an eclectic music score by Liu Tao 刘韬 and Feng Jin 冯金 that ranges from classical tidbits to inspiring symphonic as the characters meet their personal, “heroic” fates. Skilful editing by Li herself and Zhu Lin 朱琳, and the technique of short segments marked by fadeouts (when no more needs to be said), keep the film light on its feet, even when the often lavish production design would seem to invite a weightier approach to show off the budget. It’s yet another example of the way in which Li keeps the movie fresh and focused rather than simply let it become another long-spanned period drama.
If there’s a significant flaw, it’s in the modern scenes that bookend the whole thing: though the ad executive’s story is meant to stand for the country’s modern-day redemption of past faults, it’s all a little too woolly, and not helped by Zhang Zhen’s typically expressionless playing. The heart of the film is more in the 1960s segment, with fine performances by Zhang Ziyi (playing almost half her real age with ease) and the bright-eyed Huang (ditto) as the Maoist-era idealist lovers whose lives are capsized. For Zhang especially, it’s a role (recalling her early freshness in The Road Home 我的父亲母亲, 2000) that could have helped sustain her faltering career if the film had been released as planned. A more limited actor, Wang is okay as the WW2 flyer without bringing much extra to the role. Among the supports, Hong Kong veteran Mi Xue 米雪 (The Butterfly Murders 蝶变, 1979) pops up speaking Cantonese as the flyer’s matriarchal mum and Chinese-American Wang Shengde 王盛德 [Russell Wong] in shades as a US flying instructor. In the mini-story within the 1962 segment, Wang Xin 王鑫 and especially Zheng Zheng 郑铮 make much of their scenes as a hen-pecked teacher and his harridan wife.
Shooting took place in Beijing, plus Yunnan, Gansu, Inner Mongolia and Guangdong provinces. The film’s title is a phrase – used in Qinghua University’s college song – that means sticking to one’s principles whatever the hurdles in life. The same could be said for Li and her movie which, though it may not be exactly fashionable, at least aims higher than most mainstream Mainland productions.
Presented by Tencent Penguin Pictures (Shanghai) (CN), China Film (CN), Taihe Entertainment (CN), Wenjin Times (CN), Jiangsu Omnijoi Movie (CN), Shenzhen Tencent Video Culture Communication (CN).
Script: Li Fangfang. Photography: Cao Yu. Steadicam: Hong Wei. Editing: Li Fangfang, Zhu Lin. Music: Liu Tao, Feng Jin. Production design: Piao Ruomu [Pan Lai], Cao Jiuping. Art direction: Huang Jin. Costume design: Xi Caifen. Sound: Chen Guang, Chen Chen. Visual effects: Li Zhenhao, Ryan Spike Dauner (VHQ Kuala Lumpur). Post-production direction: Ma Ping. Executive direction: Xu Ke, Han Chunlin, Chen Baojun.
Cast: Zhang Ziyi (Wang Minjia), Zhang Zhen (Zhang Guoguo), Huang Xiaoming (Chen Peng), Wang Lihong (Shen Guangyao), Chen Chusheng (Wu Linglan), Tie Zheng (Li Xiang), Mi Xue (Shen Guangyao’s mother), Han Tongsheng (Robert), Zu Feng (Mei Yiqi, university head), Lin Meixiu (Zhang Guoguo’s mother), Wang Xin (Xu Bochang), Zheng Zheng (Liu Shufen), Wang Shengde [Russell Wong] (US Air Force instructor), Huang Mengying (Xiaohui), Zhang Zetian (female student).
Release: China, 12 Jan 2018.