Feng Xiaogang’s Youth is a massive, immersive sweep of Chinese history that makes the political heart-rendingly personal.
Those Were the Days, My Friendby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
By a strange coincidence, two wonderful Chinese films that look at the sweep of China’s history over the past decades have been released on the same day here in the UK, the other being Jia Zhang-ke’s Mountains May Depart.
Feng Xiaogang’s Youth starts deep in the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s. Naive young Xiaoping (Miao Miao) is thrilled to be selected to join a young people’s military dance troupe. It’s an honour, the more so since her father in incarcerated in a re-education camp. As we follow the fortunes of the group, it’s fascinating to see the depiction of life at that time – how their lives are determined by the overriding political ideology and, as we follow them through the years, how the hopes and tragedies of individuals’ lives are subsumed into it.
The members of dance troupe are enthusiastic, idealistic young people, yet there’s still a hierarchy. Because of her father, Xiaoping is at the bottom, Shuwen (Li Xiaofeng) is at the top because her father is a government functionary and Dingding (Yang Caiyu) transcends it because of her beauty. Kindly, honest Liu Feng (Huang Xuan) is the Animal Farm Boxer – the willing worker who takes on all the hardest tasks, the model worker who is held up as an example to all. But no matter how hard their life seems, the troupe are still a privileged elite in a time of self-sacrifice and hardship.
When Mao dies there are tumultuous changes, in society and in the troupe. In 1979, China is at war with Vietnam, the dance troupe is disbanded, some are publicly shamed, and some of them are sent to the border, either to fight or to work in field hospitals. There’s gruesomely depicted combat, martyrdom and blood. Suizi (Zhong Chuxi), who is also the narrator, is sent to the front as a reporter, and the film is based on screenwriter Yan Geling’s semi-biographical novel.
With some of them almost broken, either mentally or physically, by what they have experienced, in the epilogue in the present day, some of the characters meet again by chance. Now the propaganda red flags of the past have turned into the red advertising signs for Coca-Cola. The old inequalities have returned, some members of the troupe have flourished into the wealthy new middle class but others are worse off than before: society runs openly on bribery and corruption.
The release of Youth was delayed by the Chinese Authorities until now. Feng Xiaogang’s film is an epic retelling of Chinese history. His camera moves constantly in and out of the group’s lives, following the fortunes of Xiaoping and Liu. There’s an image of them sitting, all passion spent, like Ninteen Eighty-Four‘s Winston Smith and Julia, yet they can remember a time when their youth was in bloom, though it seems to be with nostalgia rather than disillusion – that, perhaps, is felt more by an observer.
Given the picture it paints of Chinese society, no wonder there were problems. To us on the outside, it’s fascinating. The authentic-feeling insight into what communism looked like in terms of production design is like seeing revolutionary posters come to life. The battle scenes are bloody and well done, concentrating on the effects on small groups in lush countryside rather than massed armies. There are beautiful dance and music sequences by the skilled young artistes in the troupe. It’s a mesmerising, massive, immersive slant on significant historical events made personal, and the passing of youth and innocence.
Youth is released on 15 December 2017 in the UK.