Nos­tal­gia Mar­ket: 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

NewsChina - - CONTENTS - By Yi Ziyi

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 fam­i­lyfriendly 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, cap­i­taldriven 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 su­perfi- cial 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.”

Nos­tal­gia

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 sixminute 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 se- ries 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 in­spira- tion 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.”

Feng Xiao­gang, di­rec­tor of Youth (3rd right), Huang Xuan (3rd left), lead actor, and Miao­miao (2nd right), lead ac­tress, at the cer­e­mony for Youth’s pre­miere in Bei­jing, De­cem­ber 6, 2017

Still pho­tos from Youth

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