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A Tribute to Youth

Youth, a new art film from acclaimed director Feng Xiaogang that explores the tempestuous fate of dancers in a People’s Liberation Army art troupe during the Cultural Revolution, has rekindled nostalgia for the 1970s

By NewsChina Updated Feb.1

The New Year movie season, stretching from late November to the end of the following year’s Spring Festival, is the fiercest battlefield of the Chinese film industry. 

Dubbed “China’s Spielberg,” blockbuster director Feng Xiaogang began a genre known as the hesui pian (Chinese New Year celebration films) two decades ago with a series of iconic commercial comedies. Chinese New Year films are lighthearted and feel-good stories featuring star-studded casts.
Nevertheless, the yearend box office of 2017 was dominated not by big-budget popcorn flicks but by a weighty, heart-wrenching historical movie exploring the social upheavals of the 1970s, made by the master of comedies Feng. 
Youth chronicles the joy and struggles of a group of idealistic young dancers at a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) performing arts troupe during the damaging Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and the Sino-Vietnam war of 1979. Released on December 15, Youth raked in one billion yuan (US$154 million) in the first two weeks, making it the top grossing movie, beating Pixar’s family-friendly animated feature Coco. 
Laden with red culture insignia and revolutionary songs, the film has stirred up a nationwide storm of nostalgia for the 1970s. 

Pirouette on the Battleground 

Based on the award-winning screenwriter and author Yan Geling’s novel You Touched Me, Youth records the tempestuous fate of young dancers in a PLA art troupe, whose duty was to promote art, culture, morals and values. The story spans from the later Cultural Revolution to the early 1990s, following China’s growing embrace of the market economy and commercialism. It also covers the Sino-Vietnam war in 1979. 
The movie revolves around two outcasts of the troupe: an unpopular newcomer and a disgraced role model for goodness. 
He Xiaoping, the art troupe’s new girl, is discriminated against by her peers due to the humble status of her family and her insular and withdrawn personality. Treated with disdain, Xiaoping is later reassigned to the battlefield medical team. As a medic, she unexpectedly becomes a war hero, then suffers a mental breakdown after the war. 
Xiaoping’s sole supporter in the art troupe is Liu Feng, a kind young soldier long regarded as the gold standard of moral perfection. The whole troupe later turns against Liu after he is falsely accused of sexual harassment, and he is reassigned to a border post before being sent away to war in Vietnam.
The story is narrated through the eyes of Xiao Suizi, a dancer in the troupe who later becomes a war correspondent. The character is based on screenwriter Yan Geling, who says Youth is semi-autobiographical.
The film itself experienced a twist of fate: first scheduled for release on September 29 and expected to dominate the box office over China’s October National Holiday, it was abruptly postponed until later in 2017. 
Youth scored 7.9/10 on the leading Chinese review website Douban, a relatively high score compared to other domestic movies this year. It has sparked heated discussion online.
Audiences were moved by characters and their struggle. Its nostalgia-laden depiction of the youthful longing of the 1970s also drew a number of middle-aged and older viewers to cinemas.
“My mom watched the film in tears. This film was like a mirror that let me glance at a much younger version of her,” one netizen commented.
Yin Hong, a scholar at Tsinghua University, says Youth as a work is representative of Feng’s career. “Nowadays there seems to be no one but Feng in China who could get a film that covers so many sensitive issues publicly screened. Its meaning transcends the film itself. More people will be encouraged to explore the history it involves,” Yin says.
Zhan Qingsheng, associate professor at the Department of Military Culture and Communication of the People’s Liberation Army Arts College said: “Certain compromises and incoherence in content do exist in the film. But in the entertainment-oriented, capital-driven film industry, Youth can be seen as a first-rate work of the year, as it seriously explores history and reality, boldly examines sensitive topics which have rarely been discussed in film before, and impresses viewers with quality art effects.” 
Some have criticized the film as a superficial and sentimental melodrama that ignores the darker side of China’s modern history.
“The narrative of the story is fragmented and confusing. Too many things the director wants to express in a single film: his personal longing for bygone youth, the cruelty of war, the criticism of suppressing collectivism, sympathy for Sino-Vietnam war veterans. But all these issues are just lightly touched, which leaves a sentimental melodrama – a personal ode to youth,” says Zhou Xia, associate researcher at the China Film Art Research Center.
“Feng is essentially a popular drama maker, even if he believes he is creating an arthouse film. Never has he been a sharp critic, observer or an auteur,” said film critic Wusequanwei in an interview with NewsChina. “He has no intention to film history. He fears to touch on real historical issues and avoids any deeper discussion of the heavier topics in our history. What he really craves is creating a resonating sentiment, an emotional outlet for the masses.”  


Despite the mixed reception, Youth has become China’s most successful arthouse film at the box office.
The success of Youth – according to Zhang Wenbo, head of Youth’s promotion team and founder of the Beijing-based marketing company Bravo Entertainment – is partly down to its target audiences: middle-aged and older people as well as those interested in military history.
The way Zhang sees it, middle-class young people in China’s first- and second-tier cities have long been seen as the main consumers of cinema and the core audience for filmmakers. Accordingly, the middle-aged, older, low-income, migrant workers, small city residents and farmers have been largely ignored by the mainstream film industry.
“Bring your parents to the cinema,” said the movie’s promotional slogan which went viral on social media soon after its release. It worked: statistics from Alibaba-backed online ticketing platform Taopiaopiao suggest 35 percent of the film’s box office take came from viewers over 45 years old. 
“It is not because my generation does not watch movies at all, but because no films are made for them,” the 59-year-old director said at Youth’s premiere on December 15. 

The film dazzled audiences with a six-minute shot of a battle, an apparent first in the history of cinema. The scene, Zhang says, drew a great number of older male viewers. 

“From the first gunshot to the end of the battle, the entire battle is displayed in a single long shot. Such difficult shots are barely found in other war films, including Saving Private Ryan and Hacksaw Ridge. It’s probably the first attempt in the genre,” Feng told the press on August 23. 
The director stressed that the single shot – which cost US$1 million – is intended to demonstrate the cruelty of war. “Many soldiers of my age spilled blood and tears on the battlefield in their youth. They displayed their patriotism by sacrificing their own lives. I didn’t do it to eulogize war, but to show audiences how cruel war can be and how precious peace is,” Feng said.
Most important, nostalgia for the 1970s, Feng and Zhang agreed, serves as the key driver of the film’s success. 
The filmmakers spent 35 million yuan (US$5.38 million) building 1970s-style sets for the film, which was shot in South China’s Hainan Province.
Young people in the 1970s took pride in enlisting in the army, Feng said. Serving in the performing arts troupe was also a collective memory held by many talented and artistic youth at the time.
Since World War II, most army units at the regiment level and above had their own drama clubs and performing troupes in the PLA. As then CPC leader Mao Zedong said in 1942, “To defeat the enemy we must rely primarily on the army with guns. But the army alone is not enough; we must also have a cultural army, which is absolutely indispensable for uniting our own ranks and defeating the enemy.”
Both the director and the film’s screenwriter Yan Geling spent their youth in performing arts troupes during the 1970s and 1980s. 

Feng worked as a scenery painter in the theater troupe of the Beijing military area from 1978 to 1984. “Personally, life in the arts troupe is the most beautiful period in my memory,” Feng said at Youth’s premiere.  

“All of my colleagues were talented soldiers of the arts, playing violins, flutes, cellos and other instruments. They played them extremely well. I hope to bring my memories to the screen to show the youth of today, telling them what our youth was like.” 
For the director, the film was more of an attempt to relive his memories of the time. In his 2011 autobiography, I Devote My Youth to You, Feng wrote, “I’ve always wanted to make a film about my obsession with a female soldier at the time.”
But to novelist and scriptwriter Yan Geling, Youth is her “most honest book.” It’s based on her personal experience in a military art troupe in Chengdu in the 1970s. Yan spent eight years as a ballet dancer and later became a war correspondent. Her experience in the army provided great inspiration. 
“The early years of my generation were deeply intertwined with the history of the nation. We couldn’t separate ourselves from the big picture of history,” Yan told news portal People.cn.
“Young people at the time had strong faith. They transcended their ego in the army. There was a sense of heroic poetics in them, which outshone the ordinary lives,” Yan said. “Such poetics, drawn from heroism and youth, I believe, will resonate with people today.” 

Sailing Upstream 

Feng rose to fame in the 1990s with a series of black-humored, down-to-earth social comedies such as The Dream Factory (1997), Be There or Be Square (1998), Big Shot’s Funeral (2001), and Cell Phone (2003). As a master of comedy, he established the genre of Chinese New Year hits, and his name is considered extraordinarily bankable. 
Feng used to be proud of his commercial leanings. “A film is like a cup of wine,” he once told the press. “I’m trying to ensure that the audience gets the most fun and inspiration from the screen. But I would never make a movie to win an award.” 

Nevertheless, over the past decade, he has tried to shift from iconic comedies to serious drama. He depicts the bitterness of civil war in the 2006 epic Assembly, the aftermath of the 1976 Tangshan earthquake in the 2010 disaster drama Aftershock, and records the devastating Henan famine of World War II in Back to 1942 (2012). In 2015, his social satire I Am Not Madame Bovary touched on themes of social injustice, bureaucracy and corruption. 

The director described his transformation as “sailing against the current.” “In the past, when other directors made arthouse movies, I filmed commercial comedies. In the past decade, as the Chinese cinema market has matured, they’ve come back to do commercial films, and I’ve turned to art,” Feng said in an interview with Beijing Youth Daily.
Feng admitted Youth was “the last film on his wish list” and also “a new challenge. “People rarely get to watch historical films concerning the issues of the 1950s to the 1970s. I don’t think such a deficiency is the right approach,” Feng said at Youth’s premiere.
“If I were content with ease and safety, I would be content to stick with commercial comedies. But that’s too boring as a creator. I don’t want to be a money machine,” Feng said. 
“A director should always test the bounds of his capabilities. To show your most sincere respect for audiences is to treat them as picky and difficult rivals,” he said. “And always give them something new.”