Director: Vicki Zhao
Studio: Multiple involved, including China Film Group
Adaptation from: 2007 novel of the same title by Xin Yiwu
Screenplay: Li Qiang
Cinematography: Li Ran
Soundscore: Dou Peng
Cast: Mark Chao, Han Geng, Yang Zishan, Jiang Shuying
Runtime: 132 minutes
Distribution: China Film Group
Film’s official website: N/a
In the opening scene of《致我们终将逝去的青春》(Zhì wǒmen zhōng jiāng shìqù de qīngchūn/To Our Youth That Is Fading Away aka So Young) the heroine, Zheng Wei (Yang Zishan), finds herself in a lush fantasy world, populated by fairy tale creatures both good and bad, only to awaken and find it was all a terrible dream. No more than a few minutes long, this opening reveals much of what is wrong with Zhì wǒmen zhōng jiāng shìqù de qīngchū, for as luxuriantly beautiful that dream world is – the scene must have cost a good chunk of the film’s 30 million yuan (US$5 million) budget – it is also completely irrelevant, for nothing that happens is of any importance for the story that follows. It is the sort of cinematic extravagance that, it seems to me, a novice director can only indulge in when she is a well-known actress with all the connections: banking on name and fame, Vicki Zhao (赵薇/Zhao Wei) was thus able to make Zhì wǒmen zhōng jiāng shìqù de qīngchū in a way a completely unknown newbie director never could have.
Based on Xin Yiwu’s popular 2007 novel, Zhì wǒmen zhōng jiāng shìqù de qīngchūn is about a group of young students whose new life at university marks their first steps into adulthood and independence. Zheng Wei arrives in Nanjing more in search of her older hometown boyfriend Lin Jing (Han Geng) than academic enlightenment, only to discover that he has gone to study abroad without leaving even a farewell note. There is more to come: her shared room is full of odd girls – Ruan Guan (Jiang Shuying), an exotic beauty for whom love letters arrive in piles, Li Weijuan (Zhang Yao), an obsessive-compulsive neat freak, and Zhu Xiaobei (Cya Liu Yase), who both looks and acts more like a boy than girl. Zheng also has a deeply unpleasant encounter with Chen Xiaozheng (Mark Chao), an anti-social architecture student one year her senior. While she soon bonds with her roommates over broken hearts, Xiaozheng continues to infuriate Zheng – that is, until she realises that she actually likes him. What follows is a 180 degree turnaround of feelings and relentless pursuit of a boy who has, of course, no interest in her.
As the years pass, the tale develops from one-sided love to sweet coupledom to unforeseen trials and tribulations, the characters growing into their adult lives. Their trajectory however is not so much compelling as reliant on easy clichés. Zheng’s one-sided affection for Xiaozheng is reminiscent of many a famous drama heroine (think 《惡作劇之吻》/Èzuòjù zhī wěn/It Started with Kiss‘s Xiang Qin), although her methods are significantly more on the bullying side. Why she suddenly likes Xiaozheng is, unfortunately, not so clear, meaning that a significant motivating force for the film’s romantic plot is missing. Zheng switches from declaring him her archenemy to vowing to kill anyone that so much as utters a single bad word against him in about a nanosecond – the pinch of guilt over a dumped lunch simply isn’t enough to explain this change of feelings. It seems more like a sudden infatuation that becomes a relationship, although, again, we don’t get to witness much here as after several scenes of chasing the boy, the director opts for a time jump, Zheng and Xiaozheng going from tightly-knit to seriously challenge-faced couple status.
The little insight given into all of the film’s male characters, including Xiaozheng, doesn’t help here – his screen time is (for being the male lead and other half of the couple) rather limited. Indeed, Xiaozheng completely vanishes from the story for a good while only to return in the final scene, where we are to believe that he is (of course) still deeply in love with Zheng, despite it all (= heartlessly dumping the girl, many years of zero contact having passed, plus a marriage and divorce overseas). Lin, the love rival, is even more sporadic in his appearances, existing initially only in conversations and brief flashbacks, then swooping back into Zheng’s life about two-thirds into the tale when he is unconvincingly ready to woo her again.
Other characters – Zheng’s roommates as well as several male classmates – also only feature on the sidelines and seem to change surprisingly little over time, other than sporting more fashionable hairstyles and more expensive clothes after a decade has gone by. Guan never quite manages to escape being purely defined by (and letting herself be defined as) the pretty girl, while Weijuan is never developed beyond her don’t-sit-on-my-bed obsession. Xiaobei, who is perhaps the most interesting roommate as she is unconventional in both her looks and actions, is sadly another character that simply vanishes from the storyline without being allowed to reach her full potential.
As Zhì wǒmen zhōng jiāng shìqù de qīngchū wants to amount to more than the average coming-of-age romance, it plays with a number of metaphors, most importantly the idea of the architecture student that must not stray even an inch off-course if life – like a building carefully planned and constructed – is not to fall apart. Subtlety, unfortunately, is not the director’s forte here. The not-straying-an-inch point is presented rather too obviously and then reiterated in the final scene, making the whole metaphor feel forced. The narrative threads of various, more minor characters follow suit and all come together rather too neatly (like bows tied too perfectly) in the end. However, as these characters have hardly been fleshed out over the course of the film, it becomes too much and is a little too late. The fate of the leads, meanwhile, is left open to interpretation – but the director signals fairly clearly what kind of vision she has of love and that there is really only one possible future for Zheng and Xiaozheng.
Cinematographically Zhì wǒmen zhōng jiāng shìqù de qīngchūn is, without doubt, rather pretty, but all the impressive visuals cannot make up for the lack of substance and originality in the film. Not that the audience seemed to care: at the box office, the film was a success, earning many times its budget with 700 million yuan (US$114.71 million) in China alone. Somewhat more puzzling are the critical reactions, which were, on the one hand, surprisingly positive, writers calling the film an “impressive” (filmbiz.asia) or even “accomplished” (Variety) debut, while at the same time acknowledging its rather serious flaws. Thus Variety admits that Zhì wǒmen zhōng jiāng shìqù de qīngchūn contains “standard romantic tropes” and that, at the end, “gratuitous plot complications and excessive dialogue become emotionally exhausting”. Elley (filmbiz.asia) also praises the film overall, but contradictorily notes that “[i]t’s only [my emphasis] in the final 40 minutes, as one after another development is thrown at the audience in TV drama style, that So Young starts to lose its emotional grip”. Given that 40 minutes amount to nearly 1/3 of the film’s full running time and that the film has all kinds of problems already from the start, my verdict is much less optimistic: Zhao’s directing debut felt like a disappointment to me.
Overall verdict: So Young is an underwhelming debut that relies on pretty packaging more so than substance, focusing on a romantic relationship that comes out of nowhere and underdeveloped characters that, with the exception of the at most semi-likeable female lead, still feel mostly like strangers after 132 minutes of running time.
- Alternative Reviews: filmbiz.asia, Variety, Twitch Film, Eastern Kicks.
- Interview with lead actress Yang Zishan over at Eastern Kicks.
Note: the dramatic flying has nothing to do with the film. These are artsy images for the sake of being artsy.
Note 2: The building model has a moment of significance in the film, the rest… frankly I don’t remember. Correct if I’m wrong, but the watermelon, radio and goldfish-in-a-bowl don’t really play a role in the film. (In other words: totally random but pretty poster.)