Feng Xiaogang’s epic Youth is a sumptuous telling of a familiar tale. Our story begins in 1970 with He Xiaoping (Miao Miao) joining the elite Arts Troupe, who perform elaborate dances and idealised revolutionary displays to keep up Chinese morale.
Coming from a poor family and bullied by her sisters, Xiaoping hopes that the troupe will be an escape for her. Her first shower at the barracks, a reified, soft-focus experience bathed in golden light suggests a new beginning for her. But an early mishap with a secretly borrowed uniform – a ruse scuppered when a photo of Xiaoping wearing the offending garment ends up plastered on every billboard this side of Shangai – immediately sets the rest of the girls against her.
A few of her tormentors soften a little – not least star pupil Fei Lung (TianChen Wang). Fei Lung is Xiaoping’s only respite, reaching out to her when the rest of the group turn their backs. Her relief doesn’t last long however – when Fei Lung confesses his feelings another girl, he goes too far and, after being disciplined for improper conduct, is sent to join the fighting army. Distraught, Xiaoping ultimately feigns an illness so that she will be dismissed, too.
As the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War throws Xiaoping and Fei Lung into conflict, the film switches, Forrest Gump-like, from wistful nostalgia to brutal warfare, balancing out the whimsy of the first hour. But although the brutality of the war segment – especially the bravura sequence with a butterfly – tempers the propagandist imagery of the film’s first half, the glory of the revolution is a problem that Youth never fully gets to grips with. Nevertheless, the juxtapositions that Feng draws between the war and the soldiers’ idealised troupe are strikingly effective: early complaints of blistered feet pale compared fatally-burned bodies stacked on top of each other, for example.
The film’s final portion, jumping forward to the early 1990s, sees the group scattered to the wind, some married, some overseas – all, in their way, still nursing the scars of the war. Yet the film’s politics remain ambivalent, regretful of modernity and age, while simultaneously casting a wry glance over the idealised past. Youth is as sentimental as it is accomplished, but Xiaogang’s mastery both of broad sweep and intimate detail proves an impressive feat.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell