Have this article read to you, listen to it like a podcast
“My mom had to visit the army in Guangzhou and bought it for me. Gaodi Market Street is full of Hong Kong goods,” says a member of the People’s Liberation Army dance troupe as narrator Suizi (Zhong Elane) tries on her belted bootcut jeans, tight white button-up shirt, and stunner shades. “The world is changing,” she remarks, dashing behind a curtain when a visitor shows up at their quarters with a newspaper-wrapped package. “If the commissar sees this, I’d be up for a court martial.” Suizi breathes out in relief when she sees that it is only their male comrade. Curious and eager, the women gather around him for the slow reveal of what turns out to be a tape deck. And whose voice do they hear emerge from the player but pop diva Teresa Teng’s — banned back then by the government for its decadence, and heralding the inception of a new age. As though transfixed, the dance troupe members hang a red curtain over the lights to set the mood and lean into the spirit of romance. Suizi rests her head on her hand as the song about love and longing permeates the room, captivating them all.
Belatedness again makes its presence known in Feng Xiaogang’s heartbreaking and tender portrayal of China, set from 1970 to 1980 during the Cultural Revolution and Sino-Vietnamese War. In the case of Youth, or Fang Hua, as it is commonly known in pinyin romanization, the central love story of the narrative between protagonist He Xiaoping (Miao Miao) and Liu Feng (Huang Xuan) is predated by distractions that temper the main characters’ abilities to express their true feelings for each other until it is nearly too late. Their romance is one that carries echoes of Shakespearean tragedy as, time after time, their coming-together is delayed, reaching finally a bittersweet end likely to cause even the most hard-hearted to shed a tear.
He Xiaoping, a naive, innocent recruit, grew up in such impoverished circumstances that she couldn’t afford to shower daily, and coupled with her provincial manners, she becomes the running joke of the entire dance troupe — a group consisting of male and female adolescents, performers of “red classic” music, whose role was to raise army morale and entertain the troops. Under the extraordinary circumstances of the revolutionary period, she and Liu Feng, a virtuous, elegant soldier the others call “a living Lei Feng,” after a Chinese heroic figure, find solace and hope in each other during a season of loss, betrayal, and suffering.
A fine-tuned melodrama, Youth stirs the emotions with colorful shards of collective memory, pieces that collect like a mosaic to form a fractured and partial image of the national trauma brought on by war. Though it is easy to reject the film as a glorification of the Chinese military, viewers should avoid the pitfall of such reductive reasoning; rather, it would be to their interests to consider the sentiment conveyed by Feng Xiaogang through his messaging about the horrific ramifications of violence, from grievous physical and mental injury to death; the potential consequences of extremes of victimhood and glory; and at the root of it all, the respect he commands for the older generation the film was made for, in all its nostalgia-patterned beauty.
With its call to action to honor the historical past with authentic portrayals of both pain and pleasure, the film demonstrates Feng Xiaogang’s understanding of the need to acknowledge a shared humanity and the significance of valuing the various shades of a little life. A period piece that thoroughly speaks to an identity carried by an entire generation, the film is marked by lush visuals, from water fights to orchestras’ atmospheric sets of battlefields and shooting ranges; and an emphasis on iconic sound that shores up the effervescent past, making it vivid in impact and brightly hued in intensity. Its credo and claim to fame lies in its evocation of national memory, for both those who came of age during an era of Maoist thought and reform and those who grew up fed by their stories of post-socialist life.
According to film and culture scholar Qijun Han, Youth is an adaptation of America-based Chinese novelist Yan Geling’s work, You Touched Me. By rejecting ageism and the lure of marketing movies only towards a younger audience, Feng Xiaogang embarked on a mission to make a semi-autobiographical picture about his and the author’s memories of being in the People’s Liberation Army dance troupe. Referred to by the director as a “freestyle” and “art” film rather than “main rhythm,” or government endorsed, the controversial production met unexpected delays upon its planned release during the National Congress of the Communist Party. The film was exceptionally popular across China when it eventually reached theaters, grossing a total of $235.9 million or ¥1.47 billion RMB.
Constant moral review and bullying resulting from living in close quarters, rehabilitation of and reconnection with lost fathers, courting of sweethearts within prescriptive military roles — Youth speaks to these and more experiences belonging to a lost generation, whose traumas are oft dismissed in favor of fluffier or more sales-friendly pitches. The dramatization of their shared history gives them the agency to reclaim their stories while also allowing their grandchildren to connect over a buried past of immeasurable import. Though in this case the revival of such memories is a belated one indeed, Luo Pan’s luxuriant soft-focus cinematography and Feng Xiaogang’s delicate handling of the material makes for a film worthy of a watch, whether to better comprehend world history and life during a transformative era or to navigate the lasting cultural impact of economic change on China’s understanding of herself today.