Back to 1942 is one of the bleakest movies of recent years, Feng Xiaogang directed a horrifying presentation on the human cost of war. The 2012 movie showed an invading army turning their weapons on civilians, people selling their children just so said offspring can eat and enough self-sacrifice to ensure that its images are permanently burned into your memory banks. All this from a director who is responsible for comedies that are massively successful at the Chinese box office, I am not Madame Bovary is the most known of these, and a director who is referred to by many as the Chinese Spielberg. That comparison would hold more water if the Hollywood legend was anywhere near as critical of his own government as Xiaogang is, a political itch that got a new further outing with his new movie Youth – out now from CineAsia. Even before it was released, Xiaogang’s movie was delayed as it depicts an era of modern Chinese history that is both sensitive and full of painful memories for many and between it and a national holiday, Youth was always going to lose.
The movie joins a dance troupe from People’s Liberation Army through the cultural revolution (1966-76) to the 1990s. Key members of the troupe face their own trials; from escaping a family scandal to dealing with nonreciprocal love, each has experiences that shape their lives in this coming-of-age saga. Then around the hour mark war encroaches into their lives, capped by a sequence which takes the baton left by Back to 1942 and takes it somewhere else entirely. Instead of the suffering of the common man, we are treated to half an hour of true, bloody war. From total annihilation in long grass kicked off by a sniper shooting the fuse of explosives, a bullet that sees the poor victim explode into a fit of red mist – literally – to a scene in the military hospital full of bloodied victims with missing limbs and torso’s burned beyond recognition. In this duo of Youth and Back to 1942, if Xiaogang is expressing anything beyond politics its that war is terrifying. With his politics, he questions patriotism and nationalism, asking where those traits end and blind subservience to a procession of new forces prepared to subjugate those lower down the ladder begins. It isn’t the most perceptive or scathing of remarks, however, in China, such lines of inquiry aren’t as common or as acceptable as they are here in the UK. This is a case of judging a movie by the rules of where it was made rather than where we are watching it from.
No one could doubt the director or Youth’s ability to depict the abject terror and hopelessness of war, if anything, its that very strength that overpowers everything leaving all else in its shadow. Xiaogang is a technically gifted filmmaker in other areas with the scenes of music, dance, and art given a credibility by staging all of it with the do or die seriousness that defines such performance troupes. As well as front-loading authenticity, the colouring gives all these scenes the visage of Chinese nationalistic propaganda – a neat achievement. However, for most of the 2 hours plus movie it is much more concerned with the drama of these characters; which I am sad to report is lifeless beyond reproach. The many individual stories it tells are pinned on characters who are first and foremost a one-dimensional set of values rather than a real, relatable character. Thus, any of the dramatic occurrences that befall them fall entirely on deaf ears, a degree of which can be chalked up to being lost in translation. The melodrama is also very strong in this one. Regardless of the reasoning, there is only one end product, Youth is a hard watch for all the wrong reasons. No matter how many times the paragon of good pops his compatriot’s blisters, this is an immutable truth. I will concede that seeing how the Chinese blockbuster space treats war is fascinating as an exercise in cultural difference, however, it is a shame the film around it is so lackluster.