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Consuming youth

(Global Times)

10:52, May 08, 2013

People used to say that when you start to cherish the old days, it means you are getting old. So it's a bit strange that so many young people today are thinking about their past.

Reviewing the hot topics on Sina Weibo or other social networks last year, content about memories in the 1980s or 1990s such as pictures, television dramas, or merely some kind of snack or drink that is no longer in production could easily generate a buzz.

The recent movie release So Young, directed by famous actress Zhao Wei, has proven that there is a domestic appetite for films that depict our collective memory. The film has broken a few box-office records domestically. By earning an estimated 45 million yuan ($7.3 million) on its opening day April 26, the movie managed to beat the previous record set just months ago by Lost in Thailand.

Iron Man 3 hit Chinese theaters four days later, and domestic films usually don't stand a chance when competing with a Hollywood blockbuster like that. However, So Young has become a real exception to the rule, gaining a total of over 500 million yuan ($81 million) in ticket sales by Monday.

The box-office success made So Young become even more controversial as many moviegoers have negative opinions about the film.

Imperfect adaptation

So Young is adapted from a popular novel, To Our Youth that [is] Fading Away, written by Xin Yiwu and published in 2007. The book is the coming-of-age story of six college girls who share a dorm room, focusing on one particularly bright and passionate girl named Zheng Wei (played by Yang Zishan in the movie).

Xin's novel focuses on the love stories among young people and each character's change after they graduate, making a contrast between the purity of youth and the cold reality of adult life in modern society.

The storyline of So Young remains pretty much true to the book (after trimming to four girls in the room) but omits several key background stories. For example, the plot of the protagonist's first lover, Lin Jing (played by singer Han Geng), is vaguely portrayed.

Audiences also joked that the first half of the film, which features college days, and the second half, which abruptly jumps 10 years ahead, are like two totally different films. Not only are the pace and tone changed, but the scenes in the second half are chopped up, making it necessary to fill in all the missing plots with dialogue.

Film critic Succeed Be summarized the problem this way: "Zhao just tried too hard to include everything."

Despite its imperfect storylines, the film's staying power at the box office is clear evidence that the film does contain enjoyable moments.

Zheng's excuse of being late for class and the boys' conversation about girls in their bedroom bring big laughs to the cinema.

The beautiful photography and Suede's title song "So Young" also puts the audience in the right mood as it fills them with extreme emotions - happiness, sorrow, perplexity or anger.

Who's youth?

So Young was promoted as having two key players from the art-house film circle because of the participation of Stanley Guan as executive producer and Li Qiang as scriptwriter.

As a respectable director from Hong Kong, Guan (Rouge) (Actress) is particularly good at period dramas and stories about women.

Li Qiang is also famous for writing literary-styled lines for art films like And the Spring Comes and Peacock, both directed by Gu Changwei and both set around the 1970s or 1980s.

However, So Young did not fully reflect either of their talent.

Li was born in the 1960s and in most of his previous scripts, life is tough and the dreams always end up being shattered.

By contrast, Xin (a post 1980s writer) has a younger and much lighter flavor. The gap between the two storytellers ends up causing the target audience to see things in a blur.

On one hand, there are many elements in the film that remind the audience of late 1980s and early 1990s. For instance, everyone was using beepers to contact friends and watched the television series The Legend of White Snake (1992).

On the other hand, the characters' way of thinking and their personalities are more like today's college students.

Wang Siwei, a film critic, told the Global Times that what the film lacks is a clear social or political background.

"Domestic films featuring college students in the last century like Summer Palace directed by Lou Ye or Heat of the Sun directed by Jiang Wen all have a clearer introduction of the social environment and the time period," said Wang.

Failing to ground itself in its time period, So Young leaves a gap between its characters and the world they are living in.

Youth as a hot topic

"Forever youthful, forever weeping" could be the slogan for the characters in So Young whose bedroom walls are covered by posters of Nirvana and John Lennon.

Zhao expressed publicly that as her graduation work for her master degree in directing at the Beijing Film Academy, she wanted to make a film about youth that belonged to the Chinese mainland.

Yet, looking at the interesting pieces about youth - such as Japanese director's Shunji Iwai's All About Lily Chou-Chou, Korean director Kang Hyeong-cheol's Sunny, American Graffiti by George Lucas or even the more recent American Pie - Zhao's temptation to make a Chinese version is understandable. However, dredging up a collective memory is a Herculean undertaking.

So Young includes issues like sex, group fighting, abortion and other symbolic elements to illustrate the cruelty of youth but contains few facts or events of that period.

In 2010, a short film called Old Boys received over 100 million views online. Many people said the story recalled memories of their youth and teenage dreams.

Succeed Be sees the popularity of the youth topic as a fake phenomenon. "We don't necessarily prefer the topic or such films that much. It's just because audiences who like to talk about the topic just happen to be really good at taking advantage of the online platform."

He also emphasized that there are many hidden causes of the booming film market such as protectionist policies for domestic films and intensive marketing of films that have famous directors or casts like So Young.

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