The Deng era is in full swing, so that means China is getting down to business, especially university students. A few still find themselves preoccupied by love, but reality will trump storybook endings in Red Cliff actress Vicki Zhao Wei’s smash hit feature directorial debut, So Young (trailer here), which opens this year’s New York Chinese Film Festival.
When Zheng Wei first encounters Chen Xiaozheng, there is so much friction, it must be love. Frankly, she is not in the mood for romance. She only enrolled in their civil engineering university to be with her boyfriend from back home. Arriving to discover he has mysteriously dropped out, she carries on as best she can. For the most part, she gets on well with her three roommates, particularly Ruan Guan, a tragic beauty with an equally problematic boyfriend.
After a disastrous first meeting, Zheng initially declares war on Chen, but quickly recognizes her true feelings. Soon she starts pursuing the dirt poor scholarship student in a manner that rather embarrasses both him and her friends. Romances blossoms over time, but it will not last. Upon graduation, everyone splits up, eventually reconnecting years later as dissatisfied professionals in the big city.
So Young sort of mirrors the college experience, flirting with outright preciousness during its early courtship scenes, meandering somewhat in the immediate aftermath of graduation, but coming together quite powerfully down the stretch. One could think of it as the Chinese St. Elmo’s Fire, but the drama is crisper and more honest, but the soundtrack is not nearly as catchy.
Yang Zishan anchors the film with unexpected grit, vividly illustrating how youthful pluckiness gives way to jaded toughness. She commands So Young, but Mark Chao counterbalances her rather effectively as the ever so reserved Chen. However, the film’s real discovery Cya Liu as Zheng’s spirited tomboy-ish roommate Zhu Xiaobei, who makes the small but intriguing supporting role something special.
Somehow Zhao shoehorns a barrel full of subplots into a fairly brisk one hundred and thirty-one minutes. She precipitously changes the tone on a dime, but allows good scenes sufficient time to fully play out. Indeed, So Young is a fascinating corrective to Chinese language rom-coms, where love always wins out, such as the All’s Well Ends Well franchise. While not a complete downer, it certainly ends in an ambiguous place, which is cool. If not exactly perfect, So Young’s rough edges are sort of appealing overall. Recommended for fans of good looking melodrama, So Young screens as the 2013 New York Chinese Film Festival’s red carpet opening night selection this Tuesday (11/5) at Alice Tully Hall.