Starring: Huang Xuan, Miao Miao, Zhong Chuxi
Director: Feng Xiaogang
Running Time: 135 mins
Youth is a Chinese film about the story of a group of adolescents in a military Culture Troupe during the 1970s, over the course of the most dramatic decade in recent Chinese history.
With beautiful visuals, an elegant story, great performances and a brilliantly nostalgic atmosphere, Youth is a wonderful drama that will enthrall you from beginning to end, as it tells the story of a few indivduals living through some of the greatest changes in Chinese history. However, as beautiful as it is at times, it’s also often a little more cheesy than intended, and suffers from a couple of awkward tonal changes between its main acts.
There’s a lot that makes this film such a touching watch, but above all, it’s the way in which director Feng Xiaogang crafts the period setting of the story. Set throughout the 1970s, from the height of the Cultural Revolution to the beginning of China’s economic reform after the death of Chairman Mao, Feng does a fantastic job at setting the scene for us, and brilliantly shows how the wider context of a country’s political situation can so deeply affect ordinary people.
From start to finish, the film is full of perfectly-crafted and very detailed historical elements that really place you in the time period, further eccentuated by the heavy use of the colour red – mirroring the red of the Chinese Communist Party – and a series of truly wonderful dance recitals featuring old party and military anthems.
Those dance and musical numbers are also a surprising highlight of the whole movie. While its story is riveting throughout, I was hugely impressed by how the film uses musical breaks to deepen the atmosphere and setting, as well as continue the characters’ arcs, and simply show some of the brilliant dancing and musical talent on display in this military culture troupe.
That’s something that I also really liked about the plot here – that it focuses on the little people behind the scenes in this period of great change. While we’ve seen so many war movies that go deep into the front lines, or political dramas that focus on leadership, I was fascinated to follow the story of both the culture troupe, the young men and women who entertain the troops on the front lines, as well as the nurses and doctors who tend to the wounded after battle. It may not sound like a spectacular premise at first, but it is a far more intimate and refreshing take on the historical drama, and something that I was really intrigued by.
However, this film isn’t just a movie about China in the 1970s, and is in fact more of a romantic drama. Now, when it comes to this side of the story, there are elements that work well. For example, the beautifully nostalgic atmosphere that Feng creates in tandem with the elegance of the music and visuals mean that the romance can be very touching and pleasant to watch throughout.
Despite that, the romantic side of the story just isn’t always as consistent, simply because there are a few too many characters, all of whom get a little too spread out across the whole movie. While the performances from the likes of Huang Xuan, Miao Miao and Zhong Chuxi are all very genuine and impressive, I found that the story struggled to make their characters fit well together in a more romantic setting, with the brilliant way in which the historical story is told somewhat overshadowing that part.
What’s more is that the film struggles to keep itself running smoothly over the course of its (slightly long) 135 minutes. While each of its acts are riveting, and arguably increasingly touching, the moments when the film takes a big turn are rather jarring, with such a big jump in both time and atmosphere that it feels like you have to get used to the characters and their positions in the story all over again.
Ultimately, the story works well, but those jarring shifts are particularly frustrating to see, and do have a big impact on what could have been a far more emotionally powerful story.
Overall, I was impressed with Youth, particularly thanks to its moving and wonderfully elegant directing, with a nostalgic view of young people in the 1970s, as well as brilliant crafting of its period setting. Its historical story undoubtedly works better than the romantic side, which falls flat at times, but thanks to great directing and strong performances throughout, Youth remains a wonderful watch, and that’s why I’m giving it a 7.6.