I’m putting a lot of my own assumptions and expectations while watching Feng Xiaogang’s 2017 film Youth. But in fairness a lot of those expectations come from another Feng film I Am Not Madame Bovary. Feng’s previous film was a biting satire on how a woman (Fan Bingbing) almost brought down Communist China, while this, on the surface feels more mainstream. This was in multiplexes in Canada. There, the Chinese-Canadian diaspora’s younger citizens wanted to see more of themselves because they couldn’t find it in Marvel at the time. It’s also mainstream since fellow Asians love ensemble dramas with a young gorgeous cast. But subversion lurks under the surface.
Here, Feng adapts Yan Geling’s novel about an arts troupe in Chengdu during the 1970s. It’s culturally specific in that the troupe serves as a microcosm of China during that time and even now. The troupe’s other members bully He Xiaoping (Miao Miao). She’s the newest member who was dumb enough to make a mistake to get her on the troupe’s unofficial bad list. She temporarily steals the uniform of a senior member of the troupe, Lin Dingding (Yang Caiyu), for justifiable reason. Or sometimes a cigar is a cigar and that the plot here is more universal, that girls’ worst enemies are sometimes each other. And at other times the other girls aren’t as mean. Even if yes, this is a film about girls and young women dancing with guns.
Feng’s direction is here for the most part beautiful. Half of that comes from hard work and the other half coming from scenes are beautiful by necessity that just lands on a director’s plate. The rehearsal scenes here are expectedly amazing. Especially, the one when they’re doing dress rehearsals on their stage in front of the Chengdu mountains. Put a camera in front of a woman dancing near a mountain and that’s automatically a good film. Nonetheless, Feng can only do so much in adapting a source material that comes with some tropes. Of course the injury of a soloist Drolma (Yuan Sui) forces Xiaoping to be a reluctant solo performer. And of course Drolma’s presence is a commentary here that I wish the film spoke more about. Although again, in fairness, Dingding and Xiaoping’s love interest Lui Feng (Huang Xuan) has an interesting arc.
Another critic compared Feng as an almost Spielberg and I agree that he’s not there yet, but this is one of the times when he at least tries. Youth, during the third of its four acts, shifts gears into a war film. This is possibly the only film to depict the Sino-Vietnamese War of the late 1970s. And then it ties both threads together as the troupe performs for the wounded veterans. Some of them, like Xiaoping, were in the troupe. Nothing lasts forever, young people make mistakes, and this film then becomes about the long process of making amends. This makes this film more universal than most viewers would expect. That last dance scene and the music they use for it, as the kids say nowadays, hits different.
Catch Youth on OVID.