Starring Miao Miao. In Mandarin, with English subtitles. Rated 14A
The Chinese title of this epic production is Fragrant Youth, after a recurring song in this energetic and richly colourful movie (and, perhaps, a sonnet by Dante Gabriel Rossetti).
The story is narrated, in retrospect, by Suizi (Elane Zhong), the beautiful and poised lead dancer in an army ballet troupe touring the hinterlands in the mid-1970s. But the main protagonist in this complex ensemble piece is He Xiaoping (Miao Miao), an equally talented newcomer at the bottom of the social pecking order because her family is in disgrace. This is after the height of the Cultural Revolution, during which Mao harnessed the energy of rebellious adolescence to help destroy critics and enemies, both real and imagined.
Xiaoping is another stand-in for screenwriter Yan Geling, who herself spent more than a decade with an arts troupe like this. A widely read poet and novelist who now lives in Berlin with her American husband, she also covered this territory in books and screenplays she adapted for Joan Chen’s Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl, from 1998, and the even grittier Coming Home, made by grand master Zhang Yimou just three years ago.
The emphasis in Youth is on movement, colour, and music, as well as on romantic rivalries in the coed and surprisingly egalitarian company. Particularly notable are the yearnings of endlessly resourceful and seemingly altruistic Liu Feng (Xuan Huang, veteran of many historical pics), whom the others playfully mock as “a living Lei Feng”, due to his nominal similarity to a humble and largely mythical soldier-hero of first-generation PRCers.
The movie itself appears to venerate the People’s Liberation Army, especially during the messier second half of its overcrowded 136 minutes, in which the company is torn apart by the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979. The actors look too wholesome and healthy throughout, and group commanders are seen as mostly wise. This may seem like mere boosterism to western viewers. Still, arbitrary punishments intrude, even after Mao’s death and the gradual dissipation of party ideology and the introduction of foreign goods and, most crucially, capitalistic notions.
The overall tone of sorrow here comes from more than nostalgia; you’re left with a sense that all that idealistic pulling together and doing without was beautiful, in a way. But it didn’t really amount to all that much in the end.