source: Thomas Henderson's Quora

A tale on China's forgotten generation -- Cultural Revolution style dancing

It would appear that many good films, unfortunately, hit walls, which is the wall of their national boundary. In 2017, the movie made Youth (Fang Hua) was a box office hit in the People's Republic of China, the sixth largest grossing movie in the country that year. The film showed the dynamic transformation of young idealistic people in the 1970s, and their tribulations during China’s Cultural Revolution and China’s war with Vietnam. The movie also shows the first experiences of Chinese to American technology of the time period such as music cassette players. While the movie was written by the talented Chinese American, Geling Yan and directed by one of the most influential Chinese directors Xiaogang Feng - the film received very scant attention from American audiences. As of this writing, the movie has been released for over a year but has not been the subject of much discussion outside of China.

While Youth grossed, $236 million in dollars or over (CN¥1.47 billion) by Yuan in China. However, in the United States, the movie had a limited showing and only earned approximately $1 million dollars. In its limited showing an American theater, reviewers on IMDb - Movies, TV and Celebrities claimed that the majority of the audience were Chinese Americans. Other Americans by in large did not watch the movie, and in fact may not have been aware of it in the first place.

Readers may be like to know, that the script for this movie took years to be cleared by the Chinese Government. When approval given the film’s marketing team used the government’s initial reluctance as an advantage. Because Youth had difficulty reaching the screen in the first place it became more attractive to potential audiences- perhaps something different or more daring than the typical Chinese film.

The idealstic youth of China's Cultural Revolution.

For viewers unfamiliar with Chinese films, Youth is a good start for its insights on China’s recent past and the human experience at living during a time of transition. The world transforms before the very eyes of the characters involved. In the beginning, large patriotic posters are everywhere, as well as veneration of supreme leaders. Near the conclusion of the film, the flaming red imagery is replaced with Coca-Cola advertisements. The zealous era that the film’s characters resided in transforms before their very eyes, with much of the ideology they had become accustomed to abandoned for a competitive and cold market.

A major turning point is the feature are scenes depicting China’s war with Vietnam which occurred in February of 1979. Some westerners may not know that China had its own war with Vietnam and could confuse it with the earlier civil war that concluded in 1975. Though the conflict hardly lasted for two months, the brutal time had lasting effects on the Chinese veterans. Certainly, the depiction of the conflict in the war scenes as well as the battle’s aftermath does a good job showing the human side.

Map of Vietnam

The life’s fortunes of the young characters we saw at the beginning of the film are transformed. For some characters, the war is a stepping stone in the career as reporters as in the case of actress Zhong Chuxi. By contrast, the protagonist- a nurse played by the actress Miao Miao endures a temporary mental breakdown, while one of the supporting characters played by the rising star Xuan Hua becomes disabled due to his wartime sacrifices. Interestingly, battlefield bravery was not rewarded by society. In the 1990s the war hero is beaten by corrupt police until he is rescued by one of his former female comrades.

In this sense Youth is certainly not a war film, nor is it patriotic for the sake of being patriotic. The movie is supportive of the struggles of the Chinese people, a transition between residing in an isolation nation and an open one but does for the sake of the characters themselves. Not for the concept of nationalism or national identity alone. What Youth accomplishes is to create a parallel between character's own development and the nation's development in a form that feels natural.

Foreigners, interested in China or foreigners who wish to see a different kind of a coming-of-age story should definitely give Youth a chance. The story it tells is stronger than any name or date, could be. Fang Hua by itself is not a history lesson, but it takes a history that could otherwise be dusty pages for some with living breathing faces. Those who came of age in the late 1970s may also feel a connection to the characters regardless of their nationality. Worldwide the turn of the 1980s was an era of idealism, and radical changes, Youth provides a heart-tugging perspective on a small part of the greater saga of humanity.