Achieving a vibrant mix of swooning sincerity and bitter irony, Feng Xiaogang’s Youth walks the tightrope of Chinese history with a showman’s flair and a subversive wit, channelling its conflicting perceptions of the past into a single cohesive, ultimately jaded vision. That audiences will likely be divided over just how much of this film should viewed as scathing satire and how much of it is simply unabashed sentimentalism is a testament to both the inclusivity of Feng’s account of the People’s Republic since the mid-1970s and the refreshing uniqueness of the director’s refined sensibilities as a social commentator.
Like Feng’s I Am Not Madame Bovary and Aftershock, Youth explores the relation between everyday people and the grandly impersonal historical events, institutions and cultural shifts they must contend with, using personal stories as microcosms for larger societal changes and concerns. If there is patriotism to be found in this film, it is a patriotism based more in loyalty to your fellow human than in loyalty to the state.
So while the Cultural Revolution-era military arts troupe at the centre of Youth is a surrogate family for its young members as much by circumstance as by choice (it is revealed that the fathers of several of the dancers have been imprisoned), the connections seem warmly genuine, albeit tempered by the same gossip-fuelled social class system you’ll find in any given high school. This distinction between the personal and the political extends in part to their love of music and dancing. A delightful early dance number sees the film’s narrator Suizi and her contemporaries rehearse without the typical propagandistic costumery (save for some plastic rifles slung on their backs), allowing viewers to witness the joy and grace of their movements on their own terms.
The lonely flipside to this state-approved camaraderie is presented via the film’s two hapless leads, both of whom strive fervently for the admiration and acceptance of their peers only to find themselves ostracised and out of step with the forward march of society. Liu Feng is a thankless do-gooder whose struggle to maintain the state’s conception of a model citizen is undone when he reveals his flawed humanity in a single instance of sinful lust. More heartbreaking, still, is the story of He Xiaoping, an eager and inexperienced newcomer whose unrefined demeanour and dishonourable family background quickly make her a target for the scorn and derision of her fellow dancers.
While the narrative setup may call to mind Jia Zhangke’s masterful Platform, another decades-spanning account of a Chinese theatre troupe’s dissolution in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, the understated, politically-charged realism of Jia’s film couldn’t be further removed from Feng’s Hollywood-indebted style of exuberant melodrama. Though the painterly visuals of I Am Not Madame Bovary were constricted by the questionable choice to limit the audience’s view to a circle in the middle of the frame, here the camera is gleefully liberated to swoop and glide through charmingly lit sets and finely choreographed setpieces.
Feng’s remarkable technical prowess is on full display when the action makes a temporary stop at the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese war. Through a masterful series of tracking shots, Feng crafts a shockingly brutal spectacle that’s so at odds with the sheltered environment of the dance hall that it borders on dark, bloody slapstick.
This grimly comical edge is likely no accident, seeing how there is a subversive sense of humour underpinning much of the film’s colourful, self-consciously artificial delivery. Though Youth has a habit of relying a little too much on Suizi’s voiceover narration to explain character motivations and the significance of particular moments, the device also adds an ironic distancing effect to this novelistic film, à la Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, as Feng’s schmaltzy style brings the conventions of prestigious period epics into the realm of half-parodic excess.
This irreverent romanticism achieves an eerie, conflicted beauty in the film’s finest moments, the most entrancing of them all perhaps being the final dance of a fallen Xiaoping, an emotionally crushing solitary display of wasted passion from a discarded citizen.
And yet surely a film that dedicates such a large chunk of its runtime to observing the passion and heartbreak of Suizi and the rest of the supporting cast cannot be entirely immune to the nostalgia of the collective. Indeed, while I Am Not Madame Bovary could feel rather one-note in its cynical satire of bureaucracy and Feng’s last appraisal of recent Chinese history, Aftershock, tugged at the heartstrings a little too insistently, Youth amounts to a richer work by allowing its patriotic sentimentalism to be viewed from both sides. Though viewer sympathies may lie predominantly with outcasts like Xiaoping and Liu Feng, Feng Xiaogang’s acidic lament resonates all the more because Youth allows the audience to understand the nationalistic flurry that consumed them and then left them behind.