I was unfamiliar with the work of Chinese director Feng Xiaogang before I saw Youth, which is now playing in its third week at the AMC River East. But based on this film—a handsome and sweeping period drama that looks at national history from the end of the Cultural Revolution to the mid-1990s—I can understand why Feng is sometimes called “China’s Spielberg.” Youth is formally impressive and heavy-handed: it’s clearly designed to be a crowd-pleaser. Like Steven Spielberg, Feng balances humanism and period spectacle in a seductive manner, immersing viewers in the historical setting while forging strong emotional bonds with the principal characters.
Youth begins in 1975 at the training center for a military dance troupe in China’s southwestern region. Though the movie is narrated by a woman named Suizi, Feng and screenwriter Yan Geling focus on two other characters, a new female recruit named He Xiaoping (Miao Miao) and established male dancer Liu Feng (Huang Xuan). Xiaoping’s father has recently been labeled a counterrevolutionary and sent to a reeducation camp, and this turn of events has made her self-conscious of her relationship to the state. She wants to prove her devotion to Mao’s Cultural Revolution by giving everything she can to the dance troupe, but she quickly discovers that doing so is harder than she thought. Xiaoping can handle the grueling rehearsals, but she strains under constant bullying from her superiors and fellow dancers. Thankfully the sympathetic Feng—held up by the troupe as a model citizen—becomes a friend and ally.
Feng introduces the training complex with imagination and vigor. The camera is often in motion, and figures constantly enter and exit the wide-screen frame. This aesthetic—which encourages a sense of curiosity about what’s happening offscreen—conveys a historical perspective. The sweep of history is moving the subjects around and motoring events; one always senses the presence of something bigger than the characters. The cinematography also suggests a visual analogue to the dance routines, with Feng’s camera weaving through the action as though engaged in a dance. Yan’s script is fairly straightforward (each principal character is defined right away with a few obvious traits), yet the active camerawork and detailed production design build upon it nicely. Watching Youth, you feel as if you’re exploring the past alongside Feng—there’s often something compelling in the background to compete with the story for one’s attention.
Major historical episodes pile up as the film proceeds, as Youth considers the fallout of the Cultural Revolution, the breakup of the Gang of Four, and Sino-Vietnamese War. Feng pulls off his most impressive filmmaking in his depiction of the latter event, following Liu Feng (who serves in the Chinese military during the conflict) in an epic long take as the character navigates a bloody combat zone. This passage recalls Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan in its immersive technique, plunging viewers into the chaos of war while asserting the director’s formal ambition. Youth doesn’t explain the causes behind the Sino-Vietnamese War, but the movie does a superb job of conveying how the war looked to those who fought in it. The battle sequences also suggest the eruption of historical forces that had been simmering around the central action up until this point in the film; as Maggie Lee wrote in Variety, they “make one realize what an idyllic bubble the protagonists’ vocation was.”
The final act of Youth follows the characters in the years after the war, observing them as they enter adulthood. These passages lack the seductive pull of the earlier scenes—they’re more intimate, considering the characters’ internal developments. The film still generates a certain amount of fascination as it transforms into a melodramatic love story about the growing relationship between Feng and Xiaoping, though I missed the imagination and historical sweep that defined the first half. Ultimately Youth is about how these individuals internalize the historical episodes they live through and emerge older and wiser for the wear.