REVIEW / DRAMA
136 minutes/Opens today/ 3 stars
The story: Xiaoping (Miao Miao) and Liu Feng (Huang Xuan) are part of a Chinese People's Liberation Army arts troupe in the 1970s. She is a dancer who gets bullied by the others and Liu, a Jack of all trades, is one of the few who show her kindness. Later on, he gets sent to the front line in the Sino-Vietnamese War in 1979 as a soldier, while she helps to save lives as a field nurse. Chinese writer Yan Geling wrote the script based on her 2017 novel of the same name.
Chinese film-maker Feng Xiaogang has proven to be quite the chameleon in his movies, going from contemporary romantic comedy If You Are The One (2008) to heart-rending earthquake drama Aftershock (2010).
The nostalgic Youth is a paean to the bloom of youth and is yet another departure for him. Perhaps the story resonated strongly with him as he had joined the Beijing Military Region Art Troupe as a stage designer after high school.
The lead male character, Liu Feng, is such a good-natured and selfless guy that the others call him a "living Lei Feng", a soldier held up as a model citizen in Chinese propaganda from the 1960s. But even a saint has desires and his one-sided crush on fellow dancer Dingding (Yang Caiyu) has unexpected consequences.
Meanwhile, Xiaoping desperately wants to dance and do well, but she gets off on the wrong foot with the others and gets ostracised.
The arts troupe environment is something of a bubble but, inevitably, the political tumult unfolding in the background - the vicious Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976 and the death of leader Mao Zedong in 1976 - encroaches on the lives of the members. Xiaoping, for example, has to hide the fact that her father is a political undesirable.
This is no rose-tinted view of youth and history, though it is not quite as dark as Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl (1998), the big-screen adaptation of Yan's earlier novel set in 1970s China. Still, the protagonists of Youth find themselves facing tough times years down the road.
The cast includes seasoned young actors such as Huang, who conveys Liu Feng's initial sunniness and his subsequent stoicism in the face of everything life throws at him, and Miao, who is also convincing as the long-suffering Xiaoping.
But their story as a couple is not quite satisfying in part because the perspective of the movie is not theirs. Rather, we see things and hear the voiceover from the point of view of fellow arts troupe member Huizi (Zhong Chuxi) and the effect is distancing.