“Youth” (芳华) – 2018 Udine Far East Film Festival Review

Centred around the intersecting lives of three People’s Liberation Army dance troupe members as they live through the tectonic shifts in ‘70s and ‘80s China, “Youth” (芳华) is the latest from Feng Xiaogang, often hailed to be China’s answer to Steven Spielberg.  The film is a measured, nostalgic take on adolescent cruelty, amplified by its historical and military backdrop.

Joining the army in a bid to escape her abusive home life, Beijing transplant He Xiaoping (Miao Miao) is a country girl whose earnestness and proletariat upbringing earns her the scorns and ridicules of her fellow troupe members, amongst whom a clear hierarchy based on political pedigree and connections shows despite the official proclamations of a ‘classless society.’ Haughty Hao Shuwen (Li Xiaofeng) is on top of the food chain as the daughter of a senior military officer and hospital administrator, beautiful Lin Dingding (Yang Caiyu) ensnares men with her looks for various benefits whilst sneaking in contrabands and luxuries through moneyed connections, and narrator Xiao Suizi (Zhong Chuxi) is the daughter of a man currently undergoing reformation who pads out the bottom of the alpha girl clique through her position as camp newscaster.

Also in the picture is model soldier Liu Feng (Huang Xuan) whose self-sacrificial behaviour leads him to be a ripe target for public utilities: couriering for colleagues, catching escaped pigs, instructing firearm usage, etc. He is an all-round do-gooder whose fall from grace after a botched love confession becomes a bizarre public spectacle that results in his transfer to an infantry unit away from the cushy, sheltered life at the troupe.

Bullied by her colleagues and disillusioned after Liu Feng’s dismissal, Xiaoping fakes an ailment and is subsequently posted to the warfront as a medic, where she witnesses firsthand the horrors of the war and goes insane after being publicly lauded for an act of valour. Meanwhile, Liu Feng loses an arm on the battlefield, and Suizi gets dragged through the mud as a frontline reporter on temporary loan from the troupe.

After the war ends, the contrasts between the lives of these characters become all the more apparent.  Those remaining in the troupe get a solemn farewell and one big dinner in their great dining hall, and disperse into civilian lives. Xiaoping is committed to an institution, while Liu Feng struggles to make a living selling books as a disabled veteran, prone to abuse from the corrupt police.

While the film and its characters’ unreserved veneration of the Maoist way and the PLA may seem fervently jingoist at times, the moral hypocrisy running rampant through the story more than subverts the ideals that were upheld, as double standards and petty offences litter the lives of downtrodden Liu Feng and Xiaoping. Furthermore, the subsequent closure of the troupe once it no longer can function as an organ of propaganda and the horrors of the war depicted all serve to dilute, and in certain spots question, the efficacy of the administration.

Though ambitious in its scope, “Youth” is, perhaps ironically, at its best whenever it steers away from the obvious markers of spectacle and scale.  The brief interludes between each set pieces are where the heart of the film lies: as Xiaoping practices after dark; as Liu Feng listens to the soft croons of nascent chanteuse Teresa Teng for the first time; when Suizi dashes across the camp yard to retrieve an heirloom. These transient bouts of tenderness are what inform the emotional core of the film, and make the little tragedies all the more poignant, especially in the denouement where the happiest ending is also the most mundane.

Bolstered by a production that is adequate without becoming vulgar, the verdant though sparse portrayal of China’s progress and the loving evocation of youth and beauty—dewy skin, lithe bodies, white-teethed smiles on dimpled faces—the film captures the elusive delicacy of youth and its inevitable destruction. For Feng Xiaogang, whose works have straddled the line between box office spectacles and the subdued human drama of compelling characters, this compulsion for fleeting days yonder is an observation that watching youth in all its freewheeling definitions and heartbreaks is an activity that never gets old.