“So Young” sees Chinese actress Zhao Wei stepping behind the camera to make her directorial debut, backed by veteran producer Stanley Kwan (“Rouge”, “Centre Stage”). For her first outing as helmer, the popular “Red Cliff” and “Painted Skin: The Resurrection” star chose to adapt a novel by Xin Yiwu, which follows a collection of friends as they experience love and loss at college and then again in later life. A surprise smash hit at the domestic box office (and recently having been chosen to screen at the 2013 London Film Festival), the film has a top ensemble cast of appropriately youthful talent, headed by Yang Zishan (“In Case of Love”), Mark Chao (“Caught in the Web”) and singer Han Geng (“My Kingdom”).
The film begins in the mid-1990s, with Yang Zishan as Zheng Wei, a small town girl who heads to a big city university with hopes of reuniting with her childhood love Li Jing (Han Geng). Unfortunately, when the poor girl arrives she finds out that he has apparently left for the US, leaving her alone and heartbroken. Things start looking up when she befriends her new roommates, campus beauty Ruan Guan (Maggie Jiang), the ambitious and practical Li Weijuan (Zhang Yao) and short-haired tomboy Xiaobei (Cya Liu), and quickly has a new man in her sights in the form of her hard working classmate Chen Xiaozheng (Mark Chao). Though the two of them don’t exactly hit it off at first, mainly due to her aggressive and rowdy ways and his stern personality, they enter into a hesitant romance, before the realities of life intrude.
Admittedly, another nostalgic youth drama romance doesn’t sound too promising, and it’s perhaps partly these reduced expectations which make “So Young” so enjoyable. Either way, Zhao Wei has done a pretty fantastic job here, and the film really is several notches above the majority of similarly themed genre films, managing to make the usual formula fresh, fun, and surprisingly substantial. For the first hour and a half or so, Zhao successfully captures the feel of youth, with a real air of vibrancy, hope and energy that makes it a pleasure to watch. Visually, the film is very strong in general, and shows a great and very pleasing attention to small details, winning points not only for a highly evocative and atmospheric depiction of a time and place, but for doing this without falling back on the usual cheap rose-tinted sentiment. Zhao directs with a real sense of rhythm, and some solid production values also contribute to the film looking great as it bounces along.
Though the story and setup are nothing new, where the film stands out is through a script that really nails its characters and their development, making them far more convincing and sympathetic than usually seen in the genre. Both Yang Zishan and Chen Xiaozheng are well written and reasonably multi-layered figures, and their shifting romance is all the more believable for its continuing awkwardness. The film is both involving and moving as a result, and the question as to whether or not they’ll end up together is given extra bite by Zhao showing from early on that she doesn’t intend to pull punches when it comes to the cruel and bitter side of love. While it mainly does focus on its two central lovers, the film also benefits from a varied and interesting supporting cast, each with their own stories and relationship problems. Although it can at times seem like there’s a little too much going on, Zhao generally weaves the various threads together to satisfying effect, and this helps to hold the attention and to add a few instances of social commentary here and there.
Where the film really takes an interesting turn is the final act, the last forty five minutes or so skipping forward to the present day and following up on how the characters have turned out. Zhao shifts the tone really quite skilfully, focusing instead on the ways in which the dreams and vitality of youth have been worn down by the harsh realities of life. Self-reflective and somewhat bitter, the film doesn’t offer any easy answers or heart-warming wrap ups, and though it maintains a realistic sense of character development, the way things turn out might well leave some audience members let down, especially those expecting the usual kind of neat romantic conclusion. To be fair, this section isn’t quite as accomplished as the first couple of acts, and does feel a touch rushed, not all of the plot twists and character revelations having enough time to comfortably stretch their wings – even clocking in at a lengthy two hours and ten minutes, the film could probably have done with another half hour.
Still, given the way most other Chinese romantic dramas of late have played out in such saccharine and clichéd fashion, there’s definitely something to be said for Zhao’s approach, and while “So Young” might not leave viewers with the same smile they had on their face at the beginning, it’s far more substantial and mature than most of its peers. It’s also a genuinely impressive debut for the fledgling director, hinting at great things to come, and should be a must-see even for those not usually enamoured of the genre.
Wei Zhao (director) / Qiang Li (screenplay), Yiwu Xin (novel)
CAST: Mark Chao … Chen Xiaozheng
Geng Han … Lin Jing
Zishan Yang … Zheng Wei
Shuying Jiang … Ruan Guan
Bei-Er Bao … Lao Zhang
Kai Zheng … Xu Kaiyang