China, 2017, colour, 2.35:1, 146 mins. (premiere version), 135 mins. (release version).
Director: Feng Xiaogang 冯小刚.
Sophisticated riff on “reminiscence” movies – set in an art troupe back in the 1970s – is full of memorable moments, lacking only a strong emotional spine.
A provincial capital in southwest China, Apr 1973. After a two-day journey, dancer Liu Feng (Huang Xuan) – nicknamed Lei Feng for his altruistic, model-citizen ways – introduces a new member to the song-and-dance troupe that is part of the Political Division of the Provincial Military Command. She’s his friend from Beijing, He Xiaoping (Miao Miao), who keeps quiet that her father is still in a re-education camp and instead uses her stepfather’s family name. As the two arrive, the art troupe is rehearsing Women Soldiers of the Grasslands 草原女民兵, which He Xiaoping watches with awe. Her roommate Xiao Suizi (Zhong Chuxi), whose father is also a political outcast, befriends her but the others – well-connected dormitory head and orchestra accordionist Hao Shuwen (Li Xiaofeng) and vain, self-serving Shanghaier Lin Dingding (Yang Caiyu) – are hostile, always criticising her personal hygiene. As no uniforms are available until 1 May, He Xiaoping secretly borrows Lin Dingding’s to have her portrait taken at a studio across the road; when the others find out, she’s humiliated for it and tears up the photo in anger. Later, she’s also bullied over using padding in her bra. Hao Shuwen fancies the orchestra’s trumpeter Chen Can (Wang Tianchen) but strict regulations forbid any overt relationships in the troupe. In 1976 there is the Tangshan earthquake, the death of Mao Zedong and the overthrow of the Gang of Four. Liu Feng injures himself and is transferred to stage duties. Xiao Suizi hears her father has finally been politically rehabilitated after 10 years, so He Xiaoping is hopeful the same may happen to her father. As the country starts to gradually change, Hong Kong fashions and Taiwan songs start to clandestinely appear. In 1978, after Lin Dingding finally joins the Party, Liu Feng declares his long-held love for her and even gives her a hug. However, they’re seen together and Lin Dingding is accused of “corrupting” a “living Lei Feng”. During the subsequent investigation – which appals He Xiaoping – Lin Dingding rejects him and Liu Feng rebels. That summer he’s transferred south to a purely military unit; He Xiaoping is the only one who sees him off. During a tour of Tibet province, lead dancer Zhuoma (Sui Yuan) injures herself and He Xiaoping, who’s never danced onstage before, is asked to take over the role. Disillusioned about the whole troupe, she transfers to a medical unit. When the Sino-Vietnam border war breaks out on 17 Feb 1979, He Xiaoping is working round the clock in a front-line hospital. Also in the conflict is Liu Feng, whose troop is ambushed in a swamp with devastating results. Meanwhile, after writing a heroic song for the art troupe, Xiao Suizi is transferred to the front line to work as a reporter, interviewing casualties. She’s reunited there with He Xiaoping, who eventually has a breakdown from nervous exhaustion and is sent to a mental hospital. A year later, the central military art troupes are starting to be disbanded. Thinking that Hao Shuwen and Chen Can are no longer friends, Xiao Suizi shows her affection for Chen Can, with unexpected results. Later, before she leaves for a college in Beijing, Xiao Suizi bumps into Liu Feng when he makes a sentimental final visit to the art troupe’s quarters. In 1991, in Haikou, Hainan island, Xiao Suizi and the now-married Hao Shuwen meet and chat, and by chance bump into Liu Feng, now down on his luck as a lorry driver. Four years later, in Mengzi, Yunnan province, Liu Feng and He Xiaoping pay their respects to fallen comrades at a war cemetery, in turn renewing their long friendship.
Richly staged and affectingly played, Youth 芳华 is a sophisticated riff on the popular Mainland genre of “reminiscence” movies but from the perspective of two Gen-50ers rather than the Gen-80ers (or even Gen-90ers nowadays) whose high-school memories continue to flood Mainland screens. For director Feng Xiaogang 冯小刚 and writer Yan Geling 严歌苓, both 59, the past is a very different country – starting in the early 1970s during the Cultural Revolution and continuing through the 1979 Sino-Vietnam War to the mid-1990s – and their “first love” story is one of emotions suppressed, not by social norms but by political ideals, to a point where they can’t always be sure whom they really love. For Feng and Yan, the old days weren’t necessarily all bad and more recent times weren’t necessarily all good – another departure from the genre’s usual template. If Youth doesn’t quite pluck the heartstrings as strongly as it should, and lacks a really strong narrative spine, it’s still a film of memorable moments whose two-hour-plus running time hangs lightly on the viewer. Despite the subject-matter and lack of big stars, local box office has been vigorous, with some RMB800 million in its first 11 days, making it the veteran hitmeister’s biggest success so far, already surpassing the RMB600 million of Aftershock 唐山大地震 (2010) and RMB714 million of Personal Tailor 私人订制 (2013).
Youth is Yan’s first solo credit as a scriptwriter for the big screen. Her previous five credits – all but one (Dangerous Liaisons 危险关系, 2012) based on her own works (Siao Yu 少女小渔, 1995; Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl 天浴, 1998; Forever Enthralled 梅兰芳, 2008; The Flowers of War 金陵十三钗, 2011) – have all been shared, and on one adaptation (Coming Home 归来, 2014) she has no script credit at all. One could theorise that her screenplay for Youth encapsulates what she’s learnt about writing for the cinema, especially the need to make radical changes for the big screen: Coming Home ditched all but the last 30-odd pages of the long novel, and Flowers (like Youth, a distant reminiscence narrated from the present day) was drastically re-worked for commercial reasons. That said, Youth suffers little from being flattened out into a linear story, even if it takes somewhat longer for the underlying story to emerge.
Feng tends to alternate the tone of his films and, coming after the semi-experimental, drily humorous I Am Not Madame Bovary 我不是潘金莲 (2016), Youth has a bright, mainstream feel – enhanced by the colourful but rarely glossy images of regular d.p. Luo Pan 罗攀 – and a pretty conventional structure. There’s no trace of Feng’s blackly comic side. The film is dedicated at the end “to all our youths”: both Feng and Yan were in their early teens when the film starts, so Youth is a direct reflection of their own experiences rather than being an abstract re-creation. Though born in opposite ends of the country, their youths were not dissimilar. Beijing-born Feng joined a PLA art troupe 文工团 as a stage designer in his teens and moved into TV in the mid-1980s. Shanghai-born Yan was in the PLA for 13 years (1971-84), initially as a dancer in a Chengdu art troupe for eight years and then, in a dramatic career switch, as a reporter, interviewing casualties during the Sino-Vietnam War. Her first novel was published in the mid-1980s.
Many of Yan’s strongly metaphysical writings touch on her own experiences but none more so than the semi-autobiographical novel that grew out of the whole process after Feng contacted her four years ago, suggesting a film about life in an art troupe. Finally finished in Nov 2016 and published in Apr 2017 as shooting wrapped on the film, the 200-page novel (see left), which has the rather awkward English title You Touched Me (a straight translation of the original, discarded Chinese title 你触摸了我), is a chapterless stream of consciousness, moving backwards and forwards from the present day to the 1970s as the mood takes the narrator, Yan surrogate Xiao Suizi. Yan’s script has the same narrator – who stresses that she’s just an observer, not the main character in the drama – but arranges events in a linear way and centres them firmly on another girl in the troupe, He Xiaoping, who’s on screen from the very beginning. (In the novel, where she’s called He Xiaoman 何小曼, she only appears a third of the way through.)
This is all sensible scriptcraft, as the novel is unfilmable as it is. If the other female roles suffer slightly as a result of the focus being on He Xiaoping, then so be it. At the end of the day, like the more discursive novel, the film is still about the long-spanned love-beyond-words between He Xiaoping and fellow troupe member Liu Feng, an altruistic, likeable dancer who’s jokingly nicknamed Lei Feng (after the Party’s legendary model citizen). The irony is that Liu Feng sees He Xiaoping only as a friend to help; he actually thinks he’s in love with another girl in the troupe, He Xiaoping’s vain, self-serving roommate Lin Dingding, a Shanghaier who ruins his life when, against the rules, he forgets himself one day and gives her a hug after declaring his love. The resulting hoo-ha leads to Liu Feng being transferred to a military unit in the south, where his life is changed forever by the Sino-Vietnam War. In parallel, He Xiaoping, disillusioned by the disciplining of the selfless Liu Feng and fed up with being constantly picked upon by some of her roommates, joins a medical unit near the same front line. Only after many many years, as the old structures break up and new ones are born, will the lives of these two “outsiders” finally converge.
All of this is narrated by Xiao Suizi, an “average” troupe member who’s never going to be a great dancer but who takes He Xiaoping under her wing and can never forget how Lin Dingding went for Liu Feng when he was down. She gets transferred to the front, working as a reporter and re-meeting He Xiaoping. She also has her own problems of the heart – with a trumpeter, Chen Can, who has an on-off relationship with the orchestra’s accordionist, the politically well-connected Hao Shuwen.
Beneath its conventional structure, Youth is a subtle blend of the contradictions that made up life for young people at the time: their bubble-like existence in the military, protected from the chaos and privations of the Cultural Revolution around them; the sexual puritanism of the times vs. the underlying eroticism of the ballets; the high-mindedness of the Party’s slogans vs. the everyday petty jealousies of troupe members; everyone’s obsession with others’ backgrounds, whether well-connected political elites or rightist outcasts; and the hairline fractures in discipline following Mao’s death and the beginnings of the New China. But despite its failings, the era is portrayed with an underlying fondness, with no trace of cynicism or condescension; that’s how it was, it was our youth, it had a kind of purity, and we’ll never forget it, the film-makers seem to say. Though the story is narrated from the present, it effectively ends in the mid-1990s, and it’s made quite clear that, although many material things have changed by then for the better, some of the country’s soul has been lost along the way.
Alas, some of Youth‘s soul is also lost along the way. As his military drama Assembly 集结号 (2007) and Tangshan earthquake saga Aftershock showed, Feng sometimes has difficulty maintaining an emotional thread throughout long-spanned stories, and Youth, though powerful in individual moments, has some of the same problems. It’s only some 75 minutes in, during the Sino-Vietnam War section, that the film really packs an emotional punch, first showing He Xiaoping’s hectic life in the blood-soaked medical unit and then (in a stunning handheld sequence made to appear as a single take) in a violent ambush of Liu Feng’s troop in a swamp. The use here of sound and visual effects recalls similiar high-octane sequences in Assembly – strikingly immediate, and here supported by the big, bold scoring of composer Zhao Lin 赵麟 that takes its cue from the uncomplicated symphonic music of the period. The emotional temperature is maintained through to He Xiaoping and Xiao Suizi’s reunion at the front and the former’s later nervous breakdown, both very powerful moments. The remaining half-hour, however, never reaches those highs, the emotion gradually draining away as the characters lives diverge.
Though hardly a superstar, Huang Xuan 黄轩, 32, has just the right looks for the period, as the selfless Liu Feng who’s tossed aside by history; with no other male stars to overshadow him, Huang’s generally low-key style of acting (Blind Massage 推拿, 2014; Extraordinary Mission 非凡任务, 2017) actually fits the part and his dance experience makes him believable as a troupe member. (Huang previously played an arty Cultural Revolution type in Blue Sky Bones 蓝色骨头, 2013.) Like Huang’s, the female roles are also authentically cast. As the bullied but quietly plucky He Xiaoping, dancer Miao Miao 苗苗, 29, who’s had some TV roles, hits just the right note of stubborn pluckiness without overdoing it; also with a dance background but more acting experience, Zhong Chuxi 钟楚曦, 24, is just right as the more outgoing friend, narrator Xiao Suizi; well cast as the vain Lin Dingding is Thai Chinese actress-singer Yang Caiyu 杨采钰, 25, who has a couple of flower-vase roles under her belt already (Love in the 1980s 1980年代的爱情, 2015; Edge of Innocence 夏天十九岁的肖像, 2017); and best of all, as the queen-bee accordionist from the political elite, actress-TV presenter Li Xiaofeng 李晓峰. Adding some maturer heft are Zhao Lixin 赵立新 (the county head in Madame Bovary) as the troupe’s kindly but firm political commissar and, in a rare film role, the experienced Su Yan 苏岩 (so good as the married best friend in Only You 命中注定, 2015) as the ballet mistress whose iron authority diminishes as a less deferential age dawns.
During post-production the film’s first cut was reportedly around three hours, taking the story right up to Liu Feng’s death (as in the novel). After premiering in a 146-minute version at the Toronto film festival in mid-Sep 2017, Youth was originally set to be released a fortnight later to hit the National Day Golden Week holiday in the Mainland but at the last moment was withdrawn. Reportedly, following local previews, Feng decided to fine-tune the editing by 10 minutes or so to tweak the film’s tempo – no doubt to appeal more to China’s antsy Millennials. The running time is now more in line with Feng’s recent films, but Youth is a film that could only get better, especially in the second half, if it were allowed to breathe. Maybe one day a longer Director’s Cut will appear.
The film’s Chinese title roughly means “Fragrant Youth” but also carries connotations such as idealism, preciousness and a fragile time in one’s life.
Presented by Zhejiang Dongyang Mayla Media (CN), Huayi Brothers Pictures (CN), iQiyi Motion Pictures (Beijing) (CN), Beijing Sparkle Roll Media (CN), Beijing Jingxi Culture & Tourism (CN), August First Film Studio (CN). Produced by Zhejiang Dongyang Mayla Media (CN), Huayi Brothers Pictures (CN).
Script: Yan Geling. Novel: Yan Geling. Photography: Luo Pan. Editing: Zhang Qi. Music: Zhao Lin, Dai Xiaofei. Art direction: Shi Haiying. Costume design: Liu Xiaoli. Sound: Wu Jiang. Executive direction: Liu Zuotao.
Cast: Huang Xuan (Liu Feng), Miao Miao (He Xiaoping), Zhong Chuxi (Xiao Suizi), Yang Caiyu (Lin Dingding), Li Xiaofeng (Hao Shuwen), Wang Tianchen (Chen Can), Wang Keru (Xiaobalei), Sui Yuan (Zhuoma/Drolma), Zhang Renbo (Zhu Ke), Su Yan (ballet mistress), Zhao Lixin (troupe’s political commissar), Zhou Fang (head nurse).
Premiere: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations/New Wave), 14 Sep 2017.
Release: China, 15 Dec 2017.