YOUTH (2017): Review by Farah Elattar

Written by Geling Yan, Youth follows the complicated, deeply intertwined stories of an arte troupe in Maoist China’s People’s Liberation Army. The film begins with a young woman’s acceptance into the troupe, which takes the viewer on her journey, and immerses them into quotidian life in the Chinese military. This beginning allows the viewer to peek into a seemingly unreachable, alternative mode de vie, which reveals itself to be as emotionally intricate as civilian life, only more directly affected by the political decisions of the country: the death of Mao, the Gang of Four, and the Sino-Vietnamese war significantly alter the lives of the characters (FEA: 5/5).

Review by FF2 Intern Farah Elattar

“Xiaoping He” (Miao Miao), one of the two protagonists as per the film’s narrator, is a poor girl who enlists in the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) as a way to escape her traumatizing family life. From her very first day, she is looked down upon by her peers and becomes the “joke” of the troupe. This continuous harassment, at times physical but mainly psychological, forces her to step down as a dancer and work in the costume department. “Feng Liu” (Huang Xuan), the other supposed protagonist, is the only person who shows sympathy towards her. Their connection begins when he picks her up to bring her to the troupe’s headquarters. When one of her comrades refuses to dance with her because she is “smelly,” Liu steps in and practices with Xiaoping, even with an injured back.

The two show rather discreet, restrained fondness of each other throughout the film. This becomes apparent when Liu is involved in a scandal, and Xiaoping is the only one who sees the purity in his intentions despite his momentary act of senselessness. She insists on walking him to the front gate to his new assignment.

As her experience in the troupe worsens and becomes more traumatizing, a scandal involving Xiaoping, among many other events, puts her strength as a individual and as a soldier in the PLA to the test. 

In this rather lengthy feature, such events make way for what can only be described as an “emotional rollercoaster” for the viewer. Much like real life, there are moments of joy, humor, agony, shame, and many other feelings that are all depicted rather beautifully in this film. While the narrator insists that this is a story of two people, the movie is able to immerse the viewer into the tales of the whole troupe. In that sense, Youth is not a wartime romance; it is a microcosm of military life, a depiction of the often-forgotten humaneness that cannot help but exist even in such a restrained environment as the military. Dynamics of power and love all appear within the group – reminding us that a movie reaches its ultimate potential when it transcends the so-called main plot line, and becomes a world of its own, often making the viewer forget they are not within it.

This absorption into the world of the film is made even more possible, and more pleasant, through the delicacy of the cinematography: from the beauty of the dancers’ movements, to the rhythm of the film that often feels like a symphony with various ups and downs, emphasized upon by the use of music and art as consistent motifs throughout the film, Youth is a film that leaves you with an incommunicable, but intense feeling.  It is not a depiction of Xiaoping and Feng Liu’s fate; it is a witness of the vitality and psychological complexities of a seemingly unemotional world, and its reactions to the changes outside of it. The writing contributes greatly to the realism in this feature: from jokes, to scandals, to realistic progressions of love stories, Geling Yan is able to capture the many facets of quotidian life.

In essence, Youth embodies a perfect example of a well-rounded film, and achieves a goal rarely attained in the limited duration of a feature: it gives you the impression of watching a life, with all its complexities, and not a story. There are no enemies, no good or bad; there are just circumstances and reactions.

© Farah Elattar FF2 Media (1/1/2018)

Top Photo: Poster for Youth.

Middle Photo: Members of the PLA play during a break.

Bottom Photo: Women of the PLA dance group doing their stretches

Photo Credits: China Lion Film Distribution


Q: Does Youth pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test? 


A rather important scene in the film is when Xiaoping is bullied by her female peers at night. They surround her, and accuse her of committing questionable acts.

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Farah joined the FF2 Media team in January of 2018. She is a Philosophy major at Rutgers University with a minor in Women & Gender Studies, and a concentration on social justice, made possible through the Leadership Scholars Program at the Institute for Women’s Leadership. As an Egyptian woman, she sees film as a very important medium, through which the voices of the silent can be expressed. She believes that film can, and will, play an important role in changing global perspectives on problematic areas such as the Middle East which is often viewed as nothing but a conflict zone.
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