So Young (Zhi wo men zhong jiang shi qu de qing chun)

China (2013) Dir. Zhao Wei

In mid-90’s southern China 18 year-old Zhang Wei (Yang Zishan) arrives at Jingnan Polytechnic for a four year course in civil engineering. She is roomed with three distinctly different girls: good looking Ruan Guan (Maggie Jiang), fussy Li Weijuan (Zhang Yao) and androgynous tomboy Zhu Xiaobei (Cya Liu). Zhang’s main objective in attending this college was to be near her childhood crush Li Jing (Han Geng) but is crushed to learn he left for the US without telling her. However after a run in with the aloof Chen Xiaozheng (Mark Chao) whom she humiliates in public, Zhang realises she is falling for him but he proves to be a tough nut to crack. But typical of teenage life, Zhang is not the only one with boy troubles.

Zhao Wei (aka Vicky Zhao) is not just a talented actress and a top selling pop star in her native China but she can now add award winning director to her impressive resume. Her debut behind the camera after a dozen years plus in front of it is an adaptation of the novel To Our Youth That Is Fading Away by Xin Yiwu (which explains the extended original Chinese title), and the similarity between the names of the main protagonist and the director is not a coincidence – Xin wanted Zhao Wei to play the role of her name sake, who politely refused in favour of helming the project instead.

A rather conventional but nonetheless engaging romantic drama, Wei offers this paean to the trials and tribulations of youthful relationships and how they shapes our lives, with a script that borrows from Wei’s own college experiences. Set during a time when China was shifting towards a modern market economy we meet a group of teens who will lead the way once this new ideal is in full swing, each with their own dreams for the future which may or may not play out as they expect them to. Zhang Wei is the nominal central focus of the drama but her disparate roommates and male counterparts are afforded screen time to share their stories too.

The first thirty minutes are an amusing run through of the cast along with establishing their academic surroundings, which may surprise a lot of people as the set up is not too dissimilar to the US colleges we’ve seen countless times over the years. The characters may be typical of the tropes of the genre but Wei and her largely inexperienced cast create a credible and highly watchable bunch.

After a few beers to wash away the pain of being dumped Zhang is forced to contend with the advances of rich kid Xu Kaiyang (Zheng Kai), the roommate of her future sparring partner-cum-object of desire Chen. Coming from poor stock Chen has to work hard to ensure a career and a way out of poverty and the last thing he needs is a hovering wasp like Zhang. While her persistence eventually pays off with Chen, Zhang upsets Zeng Yu (Wang Jiajia), the daughter of a school head who is in love with Chen herself.

Meanwhile Li Weijuan receives a visit from a former boyfriend who has been rejected from every college and unable to find work. Reminding her of her impoverished past, Li is less than welcoming towards her former beau. Bringing trouble of a different kind for Ruan Guan is her current love, Zhao Shiyong (Huang Ming), who has got a classmate pregnant and needs help to convince the girl to have the baby aborted. Zhu Xiaobei’s boy troubles come from looking like one when she is accused of stealing from the campus shop and flips out with devastating results for her academic career.

After building to a satisfyingly taut, eventful and emotional crescendo around the 90 minute mark the story leaps forward a few years to show how our young cast have fared in the adult world. Aside from some unexpected developments this is a noticeably jarring shift in tone and content, feeling more like a tacked on coda from another story than a suitable conclusion to what was a solid outing.

The end result is a dour and somewhat disjointed chain of events based around our cast reuniting after years apart, with unresolved issues being addressed, a tragedy and a huge sense of what could have been. The problem seems to be that this was purported to be a two part three hour film but instead it was condensed and combined to this 132 minute cut. It’s not so much that the material is bad but it lacks the spark, personality and charm of the preceding 90 minutes, with the presentation akin to a glossy TV drama compared to what we had before.

If we forgive Zhao Wei for this unfortunate oversight – which we should – there is no denying that she has learned well from her years on a film set, evident from the well paced opening, the understanding of creating sustainable characters and on the technical front, a keen eye for framing, composition and mood.

As mentioned before the youngsters were largely newcomers yet Wei brings out assured and nuanced performances from them all that belies their novice status, boding well for the later scenes when they play adults.  The big surprise on the established front is Mark Chao, last seen as Young Detective Dee showing his versatility as an actor while establishing a unique chemistry with talented rookie Yang Zishan.

So Young was a monster hit in China and is vindication of Zhao Wei’s decision to switch from actress to director and shows huge promise of great things with this stunning if slightly bloated debut. Until the ill advised final act this is a confident and well structured film with charm and heart in abundance. Seek this out if you can.