Many lament the lack of good quality Chinese movies in recent years, and the fact that the number of internationally influential Chinese films has decreased since the release of LET THE BULLETS FLY in 2010.
Indeed, we haven’t heard of many, apart from Wong Kar-Wai’s THE GRANDMASTER. The populace of Chinese cinema appreciation has shifted its taste recently, in the academic world anyway. Many pay attention to the independent underground documentary filmmaking group that is struggling to get their films screened in public in China. Some of these films have been picked up by academic/arthouse UK promoters; some are still waiting for their chances to be exhibited abroad. However, there are still good fiction films around, they just have not been picked up by UK distributors.
SO YOUNG (致给我们终将逝去的青春) is a good example: a well made mainland Chinese fiction film, directed by Zhao Wei (赵薇), a famous former TV actress. The literal translation of the title is, “To our youth, the youth that will eventually be fading away”. The film tells a story about how a group of friends remember their youth at university, including feelings of regret about some love stories that should or should not have happened. The story begins when this group of strangers meets at the start of university. They get to know each other slowly while sharing some moments of up and down. The university life in China is rather unique compared to the West, and has always been romanticised in novels and films locally.
The fact that students have to board on campus for four years and share a dorm with others in a tall cement building is already dramatic enough to explain the desire to rebel against the campus rules with the energy of a young heart. This group of friends do so in various ways: hiding alcohol in bedrooms, dating in the dark under a tree, cycling bicycles, receiving love letters, fighting for the same girl, going to KTV for a birthday party and attending the annual university talent show. The audience are witness to many recognisable rites of passage.
“To our youth, the youth that will eventually be fading away”
While all the universities in mainland China have a similar teaching and living style, SO YOUNG represents, and at the same time presents, a memory of many. The film, unsurprisingly, received a very positive box office domestically, but has yet to be seen by an international market. Perhaps it has been considered too nationally specific to be financially viable outside of China. Yet, for an international audience, there is much to find of interest. For those from very dissimilar cultures and life experience, this film is a visual introduction to what Chinese university life looks like – a very important part of the Chinese youth culture and identity. Unlike a standard Hollywood production, SO YOUNG doesn’t have an obvious hero or bad guy. The film plot is very broad, making it difficult to describe its beginning, middle and end; however, this broadness is also a strength and these fragments and little events could be happening at any university at any moment in China.
This is certainly not a film to increase your fantasy about Chinese myths. Whilst Hollywood might not always show it, Chinese culture, like that of every other living, breathing country has moved with the time; it is not always about the dragon, the sword or the Kung Fu. This is a film for those who are interested in exploring and becoming familiar with the country’s current culture; of knowing a little of the China of today.