It was a time of macro and micro bullying. In the waning years of the Cultural Revolution, He Xiaoping assumes the abuse she has endured all her life will stop once is accepted into a PLA dance troupe. Alas, social hierarchies are just as rigid within the ranks of the military company. As the daughter of an accused Rightist in a re-education camp, she still finds herself at the bottom of the pecking order. The friendships and rivalries within her troupe will span decades in Feng Xiaogang’s maybe not so mysteriously delayed Youth (trailer here), which is now playing in New York.
Feng has helmed some of Mainland China’s most patriotic blockbusters, so observers were surprised when Youth was suddenly pulled from its scheduled October 1st release date. Some speculated the scenes of the never-spoken-of Sino-Vietnamese War were to blame, but it could just as easily be the frank depiction of Cultural Revolution’s injustices. Frankly, it is a miracle this film was allowed any kind of release whatsoever.
Indeed, for reasons that we eventually learn over time, the Cultural Revolution indirectly led to a rather rash act that immediately starts He off on the wrong foot with her more connected troupe-mates. Only the beloved Liu Feng (whose name is a play on that of propaganda martyr Lei Feng) ever shows her any compassion. Even the narrator, Xiao Suizi, is too timid to stand up for her, thereby risking social ostracism herself. Yet, that is precisely why Xiao rather than He is ultimately the film’s tragic figure.
Even after the Cultural Revolution ends with a whimper, the troupe is still caught up in dangerously tumultuous times. He will transfer to the nursing corps just in time to serve during the war with Vietnam. China would prefer to forget that one, but if reminded, they insist they were victorious, but the gore He witnesses suggests otherwise. Liu will also witness the horrors of war first-hand, thanks to a scandal that gets him cashiered out of the performance troupe.
In many ways, Youth is the film the respectable but over-hyped Testament of Youth was cracked up to be, but it is also much more. Despite the nostalgic tone, it clearly indicts modern China for deliberately turning its back on the service and sacrifice of Liu’s generation. However, at its most fundamental level, Youth is just an achingly sensitive coming of age drama. Even though very few viewers (even in China) will have served in PLA dance troupes, it will still evoke memories of boarding school, college, basic training, or whatever, when you were young and living amongst with a group of people your age. Some you liked, some you couldn’t stand, but you were all stuck going through the same things together.
Huang Xuan is still probably the best-known cast-member. He has been a solid and sometimes brave performer, especially in the films of Lou Ye, but his work as Liu is probably his most mature and fully dimensional performance yet. Miao Miao’s He is often so nakedly vulnerable, it is downright discomfiting to watch her. However, the greatest discovery might be the strikingly expressive Elane Zhong Chuxi as Xiao. Imagine having your heart-broken repeatedly by Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. That’s what her performance is like.
It is time for a major Feng Xiaogang retrospective. It is fair to say the political-ideological implications of Youth are complicated, which makes it interesting to unpack. It is also his follow-up to the absolutely exceptional I am not Madame Bovary, which was overtly critical of government corruption in China. Plus, his ostensibly larky Personal Tailor had some unexpected social commentary late in the third act. Could it be the man who helmed rah-rah films like Assembly, Back to 1942, and Aftershock is developing subversive tendencies? Whatever the cause, he is producing some of his best films.
Regardless of what it says about Feng continuing artistic evolution, Youth is a major film, from a major filmmaker. It is set against a sprawling canvas, but it has an exquisitely intimate feel, beautifully (Oscar-worthily) lensed by Luo Pan. Very highly recommended, Youth is now playing in New York, at the AMC Empire.