In September 2017, Chinese authorities pulled the latest film by celebrated Chinese director Xiaogang Feng without explanation, enraging film professionals and fans who had pre-booked tickets ahead of the National Day release. However, censors could not stop the film from topping the Chinese box office six weeks later, earning $48m during its opening weekend alone.
Youth centres on an adolescent People’s Liberation Army arts troupe, who performs elaborate dances to lift spirits in China amid the Cultural Revolution. Focusing on shy newcomer Xiaoping (Miao Miao) and the popular Liu Feng (Xuan Huang), the troupe experiences the hardships of growing up, along with the harsh realities of war.
While the troupe aims to lift the spirits in post-Mao China, it feels ironic that the film is filled with melancholy and sadness. Xiaoping finds herself bullied by other girls in the troupe while Fei Lung is unexpectedly kicked out due to his burgeoning, unrequited feelings towards another girl. Even though Xiaogang keeps the characters in an almost carefree bubble, the highs and lows of adolescence are sensitively explored in the first half and build a particular yet overly compassionate picture of Fei Lung and Xiaoping, which deepens as the film progresses.
As Youth shifts to the Sino-Vietnamese War several years later, there is a notable shift in tone and maturity as the initial adolescent awkwardness is replaced with the chaos of conflict. Through the visually violent fight scenes and the albeit gory aftermath of battle, this reality check disrupts the film’s narrative and the audience is left hanging, as the previously developed compassion for the characters is lost in the chaos.
However, the emotional performances from the cast are consistent and deliver Geling Yan’s screenplay with enthusiasm, while Xiaogang offers visual sparks of imagination and creativity. As a drama, Youth is full of nostalgia and sentimentality – however, there is not enough here to truly engage the audience into the lives of the troupe.
Director: Xiaogang Feng
Stars: Xuan Huang, Miao Miao, Caiyu Yang
Runtime: 136 minutes