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Before Peter Chan took a nostalgic and a selective tour through the 1980s in American Dreams in China, actress Zhao Wei (Shaolin Soccer, Red Cliff, Painted Skin) dominated Mainland box offices with her $100 million-plus grossing So Young, a similarly themed look back at China’s rambunctious early 1990s culture, when economic reforms were sweeping the country and the future, was changing minute to minute. Anchored by an engaging performance by Yang Zishan in her first lead role, Zhao’s film proves the actress turned director adept with images and actors. She has constructed what would have been called a “women’s picture” in the 1950s that has nonetheless tapped an underserved market. Curiosity regarding Zhao’s directorial debut could lead to moderate success in the region, but Asia-focused festivals will be So Young’s primary audience.
So Young begins with engineering student Zheng Wei (Yang) heading to the (unnamed) big city to attend university and join her childhood buddy and sweetheart Lin Jing (Han Geng), only to find he’s left the country. Now independent and in a new environment, she drinks away her woes one evening with her new roommates in the dorm: class beauty Ruan Guan (Jiang Shuying), nitpicky Li Weijuan (Zhang Yao), who’s all about keeping up appearances, and Zhu Xiaobei (Liu Yase), the resident tomboy who could be read as a lesbian (she has short hair after all, a classic movie symbol of sexuality). They become fast friends and create their own support network for the various trials and tribulations they face. As is typical of movies about women coming into maturity, each has her boy troubles.
Aside from being surreptitiously dumped, Zhang Wei has a suitor in persistent rich kid Xi Kaiyang (Zheng Kai), but fixates on standoffish architecture major Chen Xiaozheng (Taiwanese actor Mark Chao, Monga). Their relationship serves as the narrative core, but describing it as odd would be an understatement. After Xiaozheng insults Zheng Wei’s dignity (he gave her a shove after she tinkered with a model while in his room), she begins a campaign to actively humiliate him before moving on to stalking. It’s supposed to be charming and feisty, and Xiaozheng is supposed to be cold and unlikeable, but it’s hard seeing her behavior as less than obnoxious. Evidently he thinks it’s charming because they eventually fall madly in love, and his decision to go to the United States devastates her.
Zhao and screenwriter Li Qiang, who adapted Xin Yiwu’s novel To Our Youth That Is Fading Away (the English title is a reference to a song from Brit-pop band Suede’s first record), do a nice job of illustrating the bond between the four young women as well as recreating the time period with help from production designer Li Yang; it feels like the early-’90s, with the exception of a lack of black attire for the Suede fans. Wei is an effective manifestation of the changes within China at the time, moving from timid new kid to confident, experienced woman. Though the other characters are sketchier, they’re sketched with pinpoint precision that’s underpinned by the actresses. Zhang gives Weijuan’s fastidiousness nuanced, empathetic meaning that also proves generous in nature, and Jiang sneakily gives Ruan Guan the kind of depth rarely afforded to the pretty girl archetype. Only Liu, whose big moment comes when she takes her rage out on shop owner that insulted her dignity (more insults) by assuming she’s a thief, remains a bit of a question mark. If it’s the short hair that led to the thieving accusations, it raises the specter of LGBT discrimination, but it’s an issue that remains on the periphery. Unfortunately the male characters don’t fare as well, with a late film surge by the blustery Zhang Kai (Bao Beier) the sole exception.
But then So Young makes a sudden three-year jump. As the decisions of youth come back to haunt the women, the optimism of the past gives way to the compromise and disappointment of the present. Ruan Guan perhaps more than the rest bears that burden, as she struggles with the idea of marrying a man she doesn’t love instead of the man she does, philandering longtime lover Zhao Shiyong (Huang Ming) and pays a tragic price for it. Once again Zheng Wei is caught between the safe choice and the passionate one when both Lin Jing and Xiaozheng re-enter the picture.
So Young would have been well served by ending before the misery of adulthood set in. The film’s first 90 minutes make for a complete enough film that the bloated, soapy final 40 become a distraction from Zhao and Li’s careful character construction earlier on. It’s been rumored that Zhao’s original cut clocked in at three hours, and so in that light the rushed, half-baked feel of the last act becomes clear. But even with more time the “adult” segment of the film feels out of place, tonally and stylistically. Thankfully Zhao makes the most of her cast, who carry the film farther than it has a right to go.
Producer Stanley Kwan, Chen Rong
Director Zhao Wei
Cast Yang Zishan, Jiang Shuying, Zhang Yao, Liu Yase, Mark Chao, Zheng Kai, Han Geng, Bao Beier, Huang Ming, Wang Jiajia
Screenwriter Li Qiang, based on the novel by Xin Yiwu
Executive producer Han Sanping, Zhang Jun
Director of Photography Li Ran
Production Designer Li Yang
Music Dou Peng
Costume designer Zhao Feng
Editor Chan Chi-wai
No rating, 131 minutes
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