Watching “Youth (2017)”: A Reflection on Chinese Cultural Context in Cinematic Art

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

During winter break, I watched the Chinese movie  Youth directed by Feng Xiaogang. Set in the 1960s during Cultural Revolution, the movie focuses on a group of young soldiers in the military art troupe.

(Attention, spoilers ahead!)

Liu Feng (Huang Xuan) and He Xiaoping (Miao Miao) are both soldiers in military art troupe for People’s Liberation Army. They do daily rehearsals of dance performance with Mao-era songs and stage settings. He Xiaoping, having been made fun of by peers due to her body odor, has unfortunately been the object of bullying in the troupe. Liu Feng, on the other hand, is greatly welcomed and respected for his kindness and genuine willingness willing to do anything for his fellow soldiers. However, when Liu Feng confesses his hidden love to fellow soldier Lin Dingding (Yang Caiyu) and hugs her tightly, their body interaction is accidentally discovered. Consequently, Liu Feng is dismissed from the troupe due to conducting “non-Maoist behaviors”, and is dispatched to fight in the Sino-Vietnamese war. He Xiaoping, witnessing the absurd developments of this event, completely loses faith in her peers, and intentionally lets herself be expelled. The movie, however, does end on a hopeful note.  After 20 years, Liu Feng and He Xiaoping, both discharged from the army, have finally met each other and become lifelong partners.

While I was watching the movie, I heard a lot of older people around me couldn’t help sobbing, and as the film progresses, the younger generations seem to be tearing up as well. .  Youth, in fact, depicts a familiar history of which every Chinese family tells their own version: During the 1960s and 70s, thousands of young men and women followed Mao’s lead, joining the army and scattering all over the country. Later, they fought in the Sino-Vietnamese War (1979).  While great friendships are formed between these soldiers, they also suffer from great loss. The suffering of the protagonists is the shared suffering Chinese grandparents tell their grandchildren. We, as the grandchildren, know about the fellow soldiers that have remained friendship with our grandparents for several decades.

To his native audience, Feng has a great reputation as a director who focuses on the historical and cultural memories of Chinese people. His movies in the past two decades mostly directed people’s attention to the nation’s historical struggles with natural disasters,  such as the earthquake in Tangshan(1976) and the Chinese Famine of 1942-43. Therefore, he is considered to have great cultural significance and influence. Youth is a little bit different from Feng’s usual films, however, as the movie is set during and after the now infamous Cultural Revolution, an era that, despite still haunting the memories of many, most felt like they still don’t understand and have little means of reconciling.  

In other words, Youth deals not just with shared historical memory, but also shared cultural trauma.  In recent years, as China’s film censorship got increasingly strict, lots of Chinese directors are not willing to make movies that may be considered “crossing the line”, preferring to make highly commercialized films casting countless celebrities instead. The subject matter of films becomes unrealistic and propaganda-related, even though they might tell real-life stories. Such combination of politics and cinema art leads to the increasing disappointment of the audience but, nonetheless, it still garnered boosting commercial profit. Chinese cinema has thus fallen into a vicious cycle.  When Youth’s original release date (early October of 2017) was said to be postponed or even cancelled due to censorship, public interest in the film was heightened to the utmost degree.   When the film finally screened in December, most people raised their expectation for the movie to the highest level, because they’d like to see how Feng is going to tell the story that all of them can identify with, and how he managed to get through censorship as the subject matter is extremely politically-sensitive.

The movie did not disappoint and made huge success in China. Some considered it to be one of the best Chinese movies in the year 2017. People spoke highly of it, not only because of the perfect combination of beautiful story and adept film techniques, but also due to the rarity of seeing a movie that audience can truly identify with in the gradually depressing Chinese cinema. The success of Youth (both reputation-wise and profit-wise) indicates that people do wish for a  revival of Chinese cinematic art. However, it will still take some time for most Chinese directors to realize: What is the best story? Something that audience can truly empathize with; something real.

I personally think that, culturally, the Chinese audience shouldn’t put too much burden on Feng Xiaogang, because reviving Chinese cinema is not a goal for himself, but for us as a people. We can start by thinking about what we truly want when we go to movie theaters. Do we want a fast-food cultural purchase, or an artistically resonating experience?

Featured Image curtesy of China Film Insider

Carrie Jiang

Carrie Jiang '21 is a film studies major and possibly Asian studies minor. She loves films, photography, and food.

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