Cultural Revolution Nostalgia? Film reviewed: Youth

Posted in 1970s, Bullying, China, Movies, Music, Vietnam, War by CulturalMining.com on January 5, 2018

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

We’re in the midst of a cold wave, and it’s so cold, I feel like extending my New Year’s holiday by a few more days. So I’m keeping my review very short. This week, I’m looking at an historical drama from the Peoples Republic of China.

Youth

Dir: Feng Xiaogang

It’s the early 1970s in China, in the midst of the Cultural Revolution. In the 1960s, fanatical members of the Red Guard tried to purge the entire country of “bourgeois elements”. There’s widespread upheaval. Millions of educated youth, the zhishi qingnian, have been sent down to the countryside to work on farms. And because it’s a Cultural Revolution, only a handful of operas and ballets are allowed to be performed anywhere in China.

Enter He Xiaoping (Miao Miao) a young woman with pigtails from a poor family. She has been chosen to join an illustrious art troupe that performs these productions as part of the PLA, the Chinese Army. She is escorted from the train station by the always helpful Liu Feng, right into the middle of a rehearsal, with rows of leggy women in extra-short gym shorts and clingy tops are running about the hall in perfect formation. He Xiaoping is in awe, but also self-conscious and intimidated. She’s naïve, unsophisticated, and unskilled… the exact opposite of two beautiful young women who are leading the group: Dingding (Yang Caiyu) and Suizi (Elaine Zhong). They are both relatively rich, come from big cities and look down on her simple ways. They say she sweats like a farm girl. But the director thinks He Xiaoping has natural talent. She tries to fit in but is constantly mocked and bullied. Will she ever succeed as a performer?

Liu Feng (Huang Xuan) is a kind and generous young man, modest, hardworking and always ready to help other people. So much so that they start to call him Lei Feng, not Liu Feng. Lei Feng was an ordinary soldier who died in the early 60s, but whose name and face is known to almost everyone in China. He’s on posters everywhere, and he’s a role model for everyone to follow. Liu Feng is seen as the living version of Lei Feng… but will his wholesome image stop him from showing his attraction to one of the women? At the end of the cultural revolution the group disbands and the members go their separate ways, becoming soldiers, journalists, and medics.

The story picks up later, during the time of the Sino-Vietnamese war, where some of them meet again, and again much later in a more modern China. Who ends up doing well, and who is left behind? And has anyone changed their ways?

Youth is an unusual look back at the Cultural Revolution. It works as a broad, epic romantic drama. The director Feng Xiaogang does Big Hollywood-style movies really well, with action, love, and as much gratuitous near nudity – steamy shower scenes, etc – as the censors will allow. I just had problems with the history. He sees it as a happy, nostalgic time of simple thoughts and good people. Sort of a Cultural Revolution-Lite. There have been many other movies about Chinese performers in the Cultural Revolution (Jia Zhangke’s Platform, Zhang Yimou’s Coming Home) but this is the first one I’ve seen that paints it as a happier time. Then there’s the war – like any good war movie with lots of explosions, valour and “war is hell” feeling. But this is Vietnam, which China attacked to “punish” them. Why? Because they drove the genocidal Khmer Rouge out of power in Cambodia!

Even so, the director tempers the movie with a bitter-sweet ending that makes you think about present-day China in a new light.

Youth – in Chinese with English subtitles – is playing now in Toronto: check your local listings.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

 

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