YOUTH: A Lavish Production, Mired In Spielbergian Schmaltz
While produced with sumptuous care, Youth's Spielbergian desire to over-sentimentalise every scene makes it more frustrating than affecting.
Feng Xiaogang, director of Youth, is often referred to as ‘the Chinese Steven Spielberg‘.
The likelihood is that that statement will have a big impact, one way or another, on your desire to watch Youth. Spielberg has in recent years become a surprisingly divisive figure; surprising because of the volume of adored films he’s directed over his half-century in Hollywood. Indiana Jones, Jaws, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Jurassic Park, Saving Private Ryan– all movies that have captured the hearts of audiences with their pulse-pounding action, and emotional narratives.
He hasn’t captured the hearts of everyone, however. Spielberg is often derided for his overreliance on sentimentality; his long-running partnership with composer John Williams may have given us some iconic musical moments, but the frequent swells in the score often worsen the films’ more saccharine sequences. Others accuse the director of being overly-simplistic. After all, when you’re known for appealing to the masses as Spielberg is, there’s not much room for complexity.
So is Xiaogang suited to the Spielberg comparison? And is this a good or a bad thing? The answer to the first question is a definite yes. The answer to the second is, well… both.
It’s near the end of the Cultural Revolution, and Xiaoping (Miao Miao) has been recruited to the dance troupe of the People’s Liberation Army. Xiaoping comes from a poor background, and her father has been in a re-education camp since she was very young. She’s excited about starting her new life in the military.
It doesn’t take long for that excitement to fade away, however, as the naïve Xiaoping is bullied by the others in her troupe for what they see as her odd behaviour, and poor personal hygiene. Her only friend is the preternaturally kind Liu Feng (Xuan Huang), who undergoes his own personal crisis after facing rejection from Dingding (Caiyu Yang), the woman he loves.
Youth follows Xiaoping, Liu Feng and other troupe members between the 1970’s and the 1990’s, as they are buffeted around China by years of tumultuous national events.
Good Spielberg vs Bad Spielberg
So let’s tackle Feng‘s positive Spielbergian traits first.
Youth is a film with a capital F, lavishly well-produced as any of Spielberg‘s works. It’s a visual treat, majestic in its use of light and colour. Some of the scenes are awe-inducingly beautiful; a woman takes a shower bathed in a heavenly glow, the cascade of the black material falling over a monument to Mao, anytime the troupe are performing. The film is replete with the most stunning images, a real feast for the eyes.
Feng also shares Spielberg‘s gift for accessibility. Youth covers two decades of Chinese history, and that could easily bemuse international audiences (especially as there aren’t any explanatory title cards). Yet the themes of Feng‘s movie are universal; love, kindness, duty, and the path to adulthood. Whilst there are elements of the film that are likely to go over the head of a non-Chinese audience, the universality of the central themes keeps these to a minimum.
Unfortunately, Feng also falls prey to some of Spielberg‘s worst excesses, chiefly his sentimentality. There are few scenes in Youth, particularly once it reaches the second half, that do not seem engineered with sole purpose of making you cry. As these scenes mount up after our excursion to the front line of the Sino-Vietnamese war, this naked desire to pull on our heartstrings begins to have the opposite effect. The non-stop schmaltz becomes tiresome, and loses any effectiveness it had when delivered in smaller doses. It is only in the very final scene, played simply on a bench shared by Xiaoping and Liu Feng, does Youth achieve a level of emotional authenticity.
Trouble With The Censors
As is often the case with Chinese directors, Feng Xiaogang has run into trouble trying to get his film shown to domestic audiences. Originally slated for a September 29th release, Youth was suddenly pulled from the schedules. Though no official explanation was given, the general consensus was that a Communist Party Congress, an event that typically causes the authorities to be even more severe than usual when it comes to quashing dissent, was due just a couple of weeks after Youth‘s initial release date.
The film’s general release in China (as well as the US and the UK), is now scheduled for December 15th, and at the time of writing there seems to be no reason why this would not go ahead as planned. The cause of the postponement remains a puzzle however, because Youth seems positively reverent towards China, not critical.
Xiaoping, and the fellow members of her troupe, love being in the PLA. One of the major early plot points is when Xiaoping, fed up of waiting to receive her own uniform, borrows a friend’s so she can take an official picture to send home to her proud mother. The dancers are always treated kindly by their instructors. When Liu Feng is bullied by some corrupt local cops, they are aghast to learn they have insulted a veteran. Youth is consistently respectful of Chinese history and the government; its unquestioning patriotism is actually one of the reasons that it often becomes cloying.
Perhaps it is the smaller instances that caught the ire of the censors. We never see Xiaoping’s father, but although he is in a re-education camp, his daughter’s love for him is always portrayed sympathetically. Perhaps the blood-soaked battle scene was too lacking in glory. We’ll probably never know for sure. At least now, with an official release in three continents, we can judge for ourselves.
Youth is produced with sumptuous care, each shot composed ad lit perfectly, resulting in a movie that looks ravishing. Unfortunately the narrative is never as impressive; though the grander themes will translate for audiences across the globe, Feng‘s Spielbergian desire to over-sentimentalise every scene means that overall, Youth is more frustrating than affecting.
Have you seen Youth? What did you think? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!
Youth sees release on December 15, 2017 in both the US and UK. For all international release dates, see here.
“The clock has run out on sexual assault, harassment and inequality in the workplace. It’s time to do something about it.” Read the Letter of Solidarity here. Make a donation to the legal fund here.