Ambitious in scale, Youth, a Chinese coming-of-age drama set during the Cultural Revolution, mostly excels at portraying the complexities of adolescence during a transitional period of time in Chinese culture. Using a military arts troupe as a frame of reference, the film effectively conveys the progression from youthful idealism to mournful regret in its characters. However, the film rarely scratches beneath the surface of any one element, whether it be a specific character, an intimate relationship, or a political dynamic, to reveal what lies underneath. Instead, the narrative prefers to elevate breadth over depth. In this way, the film is likely to please some viewers while disappointing others.
For example, one critic wrote that the makers of the film “fail to meaningfully address the time period that informs its protagonists’ fraught relationships.” While this is true, it isn’t clear that the film was ever meant to be a penetrating exploration of the sociopolitical context in which it was situated. Though the Cultural Revolution and the Sino-Vietnamese War help add texture to the narrative, Youth feels like it was always meant to be a coming-of-age drama rather than a political thriller or a war film. While it may be a matter of taste, the manner in which this film holds the political subtext of the story at arms-length allows it to focus on other aspects of the story. In an highly politicized age, where every public statement feels like a performance, it was somewhat refreshing to view a film that makes use of political elements without exploiting them in an overly propagandistic way. Although it’s true that no narrative is ever value-free, by virtue of the fact that decisions are made about what is seen and what is ignored, it feels like the decisions made in the production of this film do not serve explicitly political purposes.
The most impressive aspects of this film are the cinematography, the choreography of the dance performances, and the musical score. Every scene feels perfectly crafted. The staging is also incredible. Though the musical score sometimes embellishes the melodramatic atmosphere just a bit too much, this feels mostly forgivable. A deeper exploration the relationship between the main characters, Feng Liu and Xiaoping He, and their individual traits and histories may have added substance to the narrative. This, in turn, that may have justified the melodramatic embellishments described above. Overall, Youth is worth a viewing. It is now showing on MUBI.