A lyrical, bittersweet tale, Youth is set against an epic background. It starts in the dying days of the Cultural Revolution, continues on the frontline of the Sino-Vietnamese War in the late 1970s, and ends sometime in the 1990s, in a China transformed by Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms.

A young dancer, He Xiaoping (Miao Miao) joins the People’s Liberation Army – one of its Cultural Troupes. She has a hidden past – a father sent to the labour camps, a casualty of the Cultural Revolution. She is awkward and poor. When she arrives at the Troupe’s living quarters, she revels in a shower – and is amazed that it is free. Back home in the countryside, showers are costly.

He Xiaoping has joined the Cultural Troupe thanks to a man who exudes gentleness, Liu Feng (Huang Xuan). He is kind towards her as he is kind to all; respected as a capable and moral man and liked by everyone – by fellow soldiers and his superiors too. But others are not so gentle towards He Xiaoping. Hao Shuwen (Li Xiaofeng) and Lin Dingding (Yang Caiyu) seize on her awkwardness, and tease her. An incident around a portrait photograph, early in the film, has long term repercussions.

One of the Troupe, Xiao Suizi (Zhong Chuxi) is different, and seems to be more of an observer. It turns out she is the narrator of the film – her older self, reminiscing about the past. She is compassionate about the foibles of her friends’ past selves – with the wisdom of someone who knows what trials awaits them.

The film is partly autobiographical, based on a novel by Yan Geling, who also wrote the screenplay. Xiao Suizi is in effect the author’s alter ego. The dreamy, elegiac mood of the film comes from something grounded in sharp reality – not only Yan Geling’s memories, but also director Feng Xiaogang’s. Both writer and director were members of the People’s Liberation Army’s Cultural Troupes, in their youth. Feng Xiaogang is also a successful novelist, in addition to his considerable record as a film director, and has written of similar experiences in the past.

The summer heat, the physicality of the rehearsals, the lunchtime showers, the swimming, the golden afternoon light – and the sense of not belonging, of unrequited love – those are all highly evocative moments, and there is something about Youth which means those scenes feel vibrant, textured, lived.

The beauty of the images, by cinematographer Pan Luo, does not detract from that sense of the real, on the contrary – it seems to deepen a sense of idealised recollection. In retrospect, with the benefit of hindsight and the sense of the arc of a person’s life, ordinary times can acquire a patina, an emotional warmth. As a result, Youth feels authentic, and if it is beautifully stylised, that too feels authentic – simply because that is what memories often do – they get burnished, and that doesn’t make them less true.

Feng Xiaogang has sometimes been called China’s answer to Spielberg, perhaps because he is a prolific filmmaker with considerable commercial success, and is also a master of cinematic language. The fluidity, the seamless ease and technical fluency of his filmmaking are evident, again, in Youth. Feng Xiaogang is however very different from Spielberg in his ability to portray personal relationships and interior lives, and to intertwine the intimate and the epic. There is a remarkable emotional depth to Youth, of great subtlety, and warmth.

Feng Xiaogang does not avoid difficult topics in Youth – thorny subjects appear over and again in the narrative but do not dominate it, and these do affect the course of the characters’ lives. Such incidents are seen to propel them towards new, and sometimes harsher, fates. One particular incident, high on a mountain plateau, where He Xiaoping fakes illness in order not to supplant a fellow dancer, forces her, when she is found out, on to the Front of the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War as an army nurse. It is a life-changing experience.

In another scene, a young man is accused of improper behaviour towards a woman – a friend. This results in him leaving the Cultural Troupe and also joining the Front. His interrogation by his superiors, where they accuse him of impure thoughts alludes – in attenuated form – to moments at the height of the Cultural Revolution where Red Guards would compel confessions for incorrect thinking.

It also highlights the cynicism of his elders – while the young man acted inappropriately, his superiors attribute to him worse motives than he had, projecting their own jadedness onto him.

The battle scenes that follow are at times genuinely original compared to the usual ways in which war is portrayed. Interestingly Feng Xiaogang has mentioned not using any CGI effects in the battle scenes; one battle scene includes a one-shot six-minute sequence, carefully choreographed but not ostensibly so. The ensemble performance deployed in earlier and happier times, when the Cultural Troupe is dancing, spins here into something different. The visual representation of bullets hitting soldiers, the flare, the spray of blood – is unusual for any film; the mix of courage and confusion and the neutral representation of the enemy feel innovative – there is a sensitivity there, decency in what the camera is willing to show. Here again are moments which are as visually stylised as the rest of the film is, but this does not distract – what the viewer is asked to look at is the subjectivity of the characters rather than the spectacle: what they see, how it affects them, how they will go on to live with that experience.

While the film is relatively gentle on political topics – there are no evaluative references to Mao Zedong, the Gang of Four, or the political context/outcome of the Sino-Vietnamese war, other elements might have been deemed sensitive – for example the lives of war veterans as China speeds up towards a market economy. In a scene after the war, in the 1980s as the economy is visibly booming, and the gap in fortunes between old friends has widened, Lei Feng tries to negotiate downard an extortionate fine for his truck, which has been seized. An unhelpful official barks at him that ‘this is a public order office, not the free market!’. When a friend leaps to his aid, she weeps at how badly war veterans are now treated.

The issue of war veterans has been offered as a reason for the postponed release of Youth. Originally scheduled to be released on National Day, across China, and timed to maximise box office receipts and despite being said to have been passed by the censors, film screenings in China and abroad were temporarily cancelled. National Day coincided with the Communist Party National Congress. Some observers have speculated that concerns about protests, and in particular veterans’ protest, might have had a role to play.

A similar situation occurred the previous year, in 2016 – Feng Xiaogang’s I am Not Madame Bovary was also held up, though perhaps for different reasons. The director’s films, while still commercial, have become increasingly concerned with political and social themes of Chinese life – Feng Xiaogang has joked in the past that his career has followed a reverse trajectory to that of other filmmakers, who start out their careers more sharply and then mellow out over time.

One of the big set-pieces of the film takes place after Mao Zedong’s death is announced. The Cultural Troupes must disband. This moment ushers in a large-scale performance, and a farewell party. It ends the following morning with all the performers asleep in the hall, in the slanting morning light. For all their squabbles, and the petty disputes of youth, they are all bonded to each other, all friends for life. This is the defining moment of their age, and an iconic moment in the film.

That bond between all those young people, their esprit de corps, is that something that Feng Xiaogang purposefully replicated in the film by placing his troupe of actors together in the same way he had been with his friends, in his youth: spending weeks and weeks living, practising and rehearsing together, intensively. This is perhaps why Youth feels so credible, and so fluent, despite its stylised appearance.

Can there be youth without romance? The film casts a sideways glance at the tragi-comedy of love, rebellious or unrequited. He Xiaoping is drawn to Lei Feng, who in turn is secretly in love with Lin Dingding (Yang Caiyu). Meanwhile the narrator, Xiao Suizi, is drawn to Chen Can (Wang Tianchen), the Troupe’s trumpeter. But Chen Can and Hao Shuwen, who start off by loathing each other and quarrelling, turn towards each other. Towards the final moments of the film, there is a sweet and playful coda – a kind of bittersweet happy ever after for the two sensitive souls at the heart of the story, which takes form in an unexpected way.

The film is a lush, ambivalent romance – with a youth recaptured in memory only. At times it feels almost like a Douglas Sirk melodrama – but the realism is always close to the surface, and the film plays with that tension between lushness and a sense of sober daylight. The turning point, a precursor to the changes in those young people’s lives, takes place when a bootlegged Teresa Teng song is played on a cassette-player, and a piece of red voile is draped over a light. The iconic Teresa Teng was an immensely popular Taiwanese singer – she would be periodically banned in mainland China. The writer Hua Hsu wrote recently in the New Yorker that Teng was seen as an ‘index of personal desires and romantic possibilities’, and that communist regimes would see that as decadent and worse. It is fascinating to think now that the mood evoked by Teng’s singing, of romance and sadness, would at the time have been subversive. How then, would Youth have been considered had the film been made in those times? It is hard to imagine the possibility.

Youth is quite a feat: visually the saturated colours are almost those of candied fruit, and the music at times is so syrupy, and yet the film is not at all indulgent, and nothing feels cloying – even though one would imagine it should. As the characters get older, the colours and the tone changes. One is left with a sense of almost ineffable delicacy. More than a coming of age, Youth is a coming to terms, the affectionate backward look of late middle age, towards a bittersweet youth.

Director: Feng Xiaogang
Screenplay: Yan Geling (based on her novel ‘You Touched Me’)
Cinematography: Luo Pan
Music: Zhao Lin, Dai Xiaofei
Cast: Huang Xuan, Miao Miao, Zhong Chuxi, Li Xiaofeng, Yang Caiyu, Wang Tianchen

First published on Cinemazine, December 2017