Film Festival Spotlights China's Nostalgia for Youth

By Chiu-Ti Jansen

A scene from So Young: Zheng Wei, played by Yang Zishan, fessed up her crush to her nemesis, a nerdy architecture student who, during their first encounter, gave her a shove after she tinkered with his scale model (Photo courtesy of Zhao Wei)

NEW YORK - If you baidu (Chinese equivalent of Google) Chinese terms for “youth” (qingchun) and “drama” (ju), hundreds and thousands of TV and movie titles will turn up, leaving you with the strong impression that China’s legacy as a tradition-revering society has been displaced by a sudden overwhelming concern and nostalgia for youth. This phenomenon has become a mainstay of the media, evidenced by such titles as Beijing Youth (and its many sequels), Youthful Days, Who Is In Charge of Our Youth and so forth. Recently, New York had a taste of China’s youth fever when the fourth New York Chinese Film Festival opened at the Lincoln Center with Chinese actress Zhao Wei’s directorial debut with the film So Young.

So Young is based on the best-selling novel To Our Youth that is Fading Away by Xin Yiwu, who originally cast Zhao as the female lead. Instead, Zhao opted for directing this film as an autobiographical reminiscence about her own formative years in the 1990s. The film has become a major hit at the Chinese box office, grossing over 700 million Yuan (US$115 million).

Zhao Wei on the promotional tour of So Young in China (Photo courtesy of Zhao Wei)

Before I attended the New York premiere, I was expecting a clichéd formula for this type of drama: the tension between the one-child-per-family youth generation striving for independence and their overprotective parents.

Zhao Wei’s adaptation of the coming-of-age Bildungsroman is centered around four college roommates on their way to womanhood. Each, in her own way, is more audacious than her male counterpart in expressing and pursuing what she wants. Zheng Wei, a plain-looking but attention-grabbing “man-chaser,” corners a self-absorbed architecture student until he falls in love with her. The resident tomboy, Zhu Xiaobei, dares to express her anger more than anyone else, as she is expelled from school due to her violent vengeance on a grocery store whose owner mistakes her for a thief,

By contrast, the boys who give these girls trouble harbor unspoken crushes (e.g., Zhang Kai confesses in front of Ruan Guan’s grave that, back in college, he was the mysterious admirer who regularly sent her bouquets of flowers) and unexpressed anger (e.g., Zheng Wei’s childhood sweetheart Lin Jing withdraws from their budding romance after learning about the romantic intrigue between his own father and Zheng’s mother). 

Zhao Wei on the set of So Young (Photo courtesy of Zhao Wei)

China is now home to the world’s youngest group of millionaires and billionaires.  The average age of Chinese millionaires, according to the 2013 Hurun Report, is significantly younger than that of their U.S. and European counterparts at only 38 years old. This younger Chinese generation is the receptive audience of Zhao Wei, now 37, who was one of the first “youth idols” in China after she gained a major following for her title role in the hit TV series The Return of Princess Pearl (Huanzhu Gege; 1998). Zhao’s continued popularity is evident in the current 50 million followers of her Weibo micro-blog.

Why do these privileged fellows, still in their prime, already indulge in nostalgia for youth?

Chi Peng (b. 1981), a Beijing-based artist that has made his generation’s self-obsession a subject of his digitally maneuvered photographic art, as indicated in the title of his solo show Me, Myself and I at the Groninger Museum and in this I Am Sorry, I Just Don’t Love You, C-Print, 2008 (Photo courtesy of Chi Peng).

Like her millionaire peers, Zhao was born in the same year that the Cultural Revolution came to an end. As the capitalist experiment chipped away at the entrenched dominance of socialist collectivism, it failed to create a viable standard of shared values. Thus, a strong concern for youth, prolonged adolescence and the developmental journey to adult maturation have become a communal binding agent that allows a new crop of “post-Cultural Revolution,” “post-1980s” and “post-1990s” Chinese to establish a shared point of reference amongst themselves.

Some critics panned the last 40-minute account of “seven years later” as a “soapy distraction.” I disagree. By revisiting the past events, the act of remembering itself brings new revelations and insights to the characters, as well as to the audience. For Zhao’s generation, their personal growth mirrors the rapid transformation of urban China into a success-driven society. Thus, the lamented loss of youth that inevitably accompanies the path to adulthood is also a requiem for a pivotal bygone era.

I met Zhao Wei at the opening night gala of the Fourth New York Chinese Film Festival at the Lincoln Center (Photo by courtesy of Robert Engle)

New York Chinese Film Festival
November 5,6 and 7, 2013
Lincoln Center

New York

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