Monday, 1 January 2018

Movie review: Youth (Fang hua), dir Feng Xiaogang (2017)

To be honest, this piece of what appeared to me to be subtitled Party propaganda, is mawkish. It made a woman seated two seats along from me collapse in uncontrollable sobs at a number of points during the screening. If nothing else it’s a real tear-jerker. The film relies heavily on nationalistic tropes to fashion some sort of saddle for shared feeling to ride on the back of ostensibly collective hardship. The zeal of the director and his posse of actors in the service of the depicting the virtue of the People’s Liberation Army is in a palpable force that drives the sometimes creaky narrative forward on a wave of pure emotion.

Overall, it’s a shocker but I’m very glad I went along to see it. At moments it was touching and real and brought to your attention the fact that much of the turbulent history of China’s foundation is still very present today in many ways, not the least of which is the love of their country shared by Chinese people everywhere.

To start this review, which is largely negative but not overwhelmingly so, it has to be admitted by anyone who is honest with him- or herself that the story is thumpingly self-referential, and thus ideal material for a fascist regime that will do anything it can to retain power in the face of global censure of its unquenchable reluctance to embrace democracy. Tanks get a lot of screen-time. Guns it turns out make good props. Quite without irony, the main characters in the film are actors in a performing arts troupe dedicated to entertaining troops in the various conflicts that combined to make up the red weft of the fabric of modern China, starting in the Cultural Revolution. So, it’s a piece of propaganda based on the story of a propaganda vehicle. What irony there is, is mild, but there are critical moments, and I’ll get to some of these.

The love story that survives the carnage wrought by the scriptwriters is a weird assemblage of suffering in the face of unbearable and unrelenting hardship, but love was always going to form the weave that the film’s otherwise threadbare story relies on to make its thin cloth whole. The title of the film itself is testament to that aspiration. Youth is the time in life when love customarily blossoms and the director makes much of the trope, rounding out his survey of the recent past in the end with a roughly appropriate mention of the youth of the main actors in their prime.

The frugal environment of the performance troupe in its heyday, with its austere but dedicated and fair dancing instructor (Yan Su), forms a backdrop of contrast for the attractive young dancers. In a scene in the women’s changing rooms, the dancers are shown putting their street clothes over their underwear, garments whose utilitarian purpose touchingly underscores their humanity and the possibility of romance in their otherwise circumscribed lives.

Liu Feng (Xuan Huang) is an unassuming hero in this odd tale, and he falls in love with Dingding Lin (Caiyu Yang) then effusively declares his affection before being officially reprimanded by a team of thuggish apparatchiks and sent to the front in the south to fight in a brief and disastrous war against Vietnam. The way the Party machine overpowers the more fragile needs of the individual here is regrettable but probably accurate and you experience the wider echoes of this form of bullying as part of a broader dynamic when you see street scenes showing protests by loyal Party followers.

Xiaoping He (Miao Miao) had already suffered before joining the troupe, because her father had earlier been sent to a re-education prison, and entering the acting troupe was her exit from hardship. You can imagine those crowds of youths in the street publicly reprimanding her father for some imagined shortcoming or other before he was sent to the prison. The pathos of this young woman's attempts to make herself palatable to her coevals is signal especially since the women around her seem motivated by an ugly compulsion to bully her due to her unpromising background as the daughter of a Rightist. Again, you see the individual being bent into an uncomfortable position beneath the overbearing force of the collective will. Your heart goes out to her as she negotiates the complexities of life in the troupe and her achievement at the denouement is fitting given what she has gone through.

Xiaoping He ends up being expelled from the troupe at about the same time as Liu Feng and is sent to be a nurse in the same Vietnam conflict. She is traumatised by the violence and ends up in a mental institution. Liu Feng loses an arm down south following a cracked attempt by the filmmakers to illustrate utter self-denial in selfless service of the motherland. As usual, no irony is evident in any of the ruses contrived to achieve these plot twists. It’s all totally po-faced. It’s as though there was a competition among the writers to see which one could invent the character that suffers more. Achieving modernity was always going to be difficult, and the audience – I was one of the only non-Chinese sitting there – doubtless agreed.

There is plenty that is uncritical in the film, which to me struggles to a noteworthy degree to reconcile a pervasive nationalism with the otherwise legitimate aspirations of the protagonists. Separating the two things seems difficult for the person sitting in the audience but in the end it is the only thing that may give him or her the requisite critical distance to enable them to discern what is valuable in the melange and what can be written off as mere doggerel.

One scene however serves to encapsulate in rich detail the filmmakers’ reservations about the way things have turned out since the fight for liberation ended. The troupe has just been given its orders to disband because the wars are over. Under the paternal eye of the political commissar (Lixin Zhao) the men and women gather together in their dining hall for a final meal and, fuelled by youthful emotion and plenty of alcohol (served up in suitably rustic enamelled mugs), sing nationalistic songs to celebrate the bonds that made them cohere. Briefly you can understand the strength of the collective in the raised voices and patriotic words, but in the end they all collapse in a drunken stupor wherever they can find room for their exhausted bodies. Some end up on the floor. In the morning, the film’s narrator Suizi (Elane Zhong) is shown waking up with her head on the table. (Mercifully we are spared the vision of the implied pool of vomit.) She surveys the carnage of the night before as her comrades finish sleeping off the booze they consumed in the maudlin riot.

Flash forward to the 1990s and the years of bloodshed are just a memory for many. In a materialistic present, prelude to a glorious and still-unrealised future, the men and women who formed the troupe are getting by in metropolitan China. We come across one-armed Liu Feng who works as a truck driver delivering books in Hainan. But his truck has been impounded by capricious and probably corrupt authorities. He is recognised on the street when one of his former comrades from the troupe comes by and after listening to his tale of woe she extracts from her white leather handbag the 1000 yuan he needs to release his truck from the lockup. In a scuffle with the cops, his plastic arm is dislodged and falls clattering to the road. The woman remonstrates with the goonish filth, accusing them of abusing a hero of the glorious struggle for independence. This kind of criticism of the status quo appears promising at first blush but it goes only so far and no further. The PLA and the Party leadership are spared close scrutiny even though common knowledge has it that a fish always rots from the head.

There is plenty of gore and violence in this film, too. Its war scenes are particularly unpleasant and depressingly realistic. Depressing especially because they intimate the lengths the Party would still be prepared to go to protect its undeserved prerogatives. The metallic rumble of a battle tank at full throttle might make a good ringtone for Xi Jinping’s smartphone. If nothing else, the story of modern China is a story of armed conflict, and where you have winners you also have losers. The Communist Party of China is determined to be among the winners. The soppy fare we witnessed in the Event cinema is proof that its leaders are intent on getting their tired message out.

In the final analysis this film appears to be an apologia for a regime that has nothing useful to offer. Having said that in my mind the reaction of the woman seated nearby demonstrated that there is a willing audience among Chinese people wherever they live for its intoxicating brand of jingoism. It turns out this kind of tawdry stuff suits the appetite of young Chinese people. You wonder to what extent the audience supports the CPC and the PLA, its armed wing, and whether they truly aspire to live in a society where the kind of authoritarian caprice the film criticises can be countered by the public scrutiny that only a truly independent and free media can bring to bear. You worry that the CPC will be little troubled in convincing even the most demanding Chinese to acquiesce in its unelected leadership as long as they can enjoy material wellbeing, and as long as they continue to be fed the kind of nationalistic exceptionalism that this film is frequently made of.

The Chinese are a people still working out what to keep as part of their national mythology, and what to abandon in the mists of time. The way that the past is presented afresh in this movie reminds us that this process of selection still has some way to go before it is done.

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