Nostalgic youth films in China – Lauren Teixeira
The release of Feng Xiaogang’s high-profile film Youth, a swoony romance set during the late Cultural Revolution and China’s brief incursion into Vietnam, was dramatically halted in the lead up to the 19th Party Congress last October, touching as it did on a historically sensitive period. Meanwhile, a nostalgic coming-of-age film set at a vocational college in 1997, We Roared Past Youth (the Chinese title translates as ‘That Fleeting Period of Youth’), quietly entered theaters on October 5. On the surface, the film bore a number of similarities to Youth: unrequited teen love, family drama, and the hazy burnishing of an era goneby. But whereas Youth sought to grapple with China’s history – in its own perhaps overly rose-tinted way – We Roared Past Youth did not engage with its historical backdrop beyond a few nostalgic touches.
Followers of Chinese cinema will recognize it as the latest entry into the nostalgic yet singularly ahistorical, apolitical genre of “youth film” (qingchunpian) that has emerged to great popularity this decade among China’s millennials.
Qingchunpian tend to have vague, wistful names like Yesterday Once More, Our Times, Young Style, My Old Classmate, or the grammatically bizarre Fleet of Time. Many are based on novels in the qingchun genre with names that translate as ‘That Short Period of Youth To Which We Can Never Return’ and ‘To Our Youth That is Fading Away.’ Exploring the struggles of fleeting youth, We Roared Past Youth could not be a more representative sample of the genre. The film is told from the perspective of Yang Beibing, a white collar now living in Hong Kong, who reflects on her time leading a girl gang at a gritty vocational college in China’s post-industrial Northeast. At that time, Beibing nursed a secret crush on a good boy, Yu Yi, who was oblivious to the feelings she kept hidden beneath her tough exterior. After a tragic incident involving a classmate whom Yu Yi fancied, Yu Yi and Beibing drift apart. Twenty years later, Beibing still finds herself thinking of him.
We Roared Past Youth faithfully follows the blueprint for this genre of cinema that was set by its progenitor, You Are the Apple of My Eye (‘The Girl We Chased, in Those Years’ in Chinese) a bittersweet teen dramedy that became a cult hit in China and Taiwan upon its release in 2011. You Are the Apple of My Eye is told from the perspective of Ko Wenting, who reflects on his formative senior year of high school in 1994 and the schemes that he and his prankster friends – nicknamed Cock, Boner, Fuck, and A-ha – plotted to win the heart of their class’s star student, Shan Chiayi. After initial mutual dislike, Ko and Shan Chiayi grow closer when he and his friends are caught literally jerking off in class and Ko is reseated in front of Shan Chiayi as punishment. One day, he takes the fall for her when she forgets her textbook, and she pays him back by helping him study for the upcoming test. The first half of the film, set entirely during Ko’s senior year of high school, is a delightful and light hearted celebration of adolescent love and friendship. But things turn darker after graduation, when Ko and Shan Chiayi, still unable to admit their feelings to each other, go to different universities and lose touch after a series of misunderstandings. The film ends with Ko and his high school friends reuniting at Shan Chiayi’s wedding, where Ko reflects on what could have been in a montage sure to squeeze tears out of even the most hardened qingchunpian viewers.
A torrent of films followed You Are the Apple of My Eye, such as So Young, the directorial debut by famous Chinese actress Zhao Wei that was a box-office smash in 2013. Even Han Han entered the fray last year with Duckweed, 102 minutes of pure 90s nostalgia in which he plays a racing-car driver who is transported back in time to meet his youthful father and mother. While most of these efforts have lacked the subversive humor and charismatic actors of the original, they largely keep the melancholic framework of an unrealized romance between the two protagonists that You Are the Apple of My Eye leveraged with such heart-twisting results. Many of the films are set in the 1990s – no doubt this has to do with the age of their intended audience – but even the ones set in the present day are haunted by this sense of loss. From where does this sad-sack impulse stem? And why are Chinese millennials so eager to remember high school, a time that for most was spent inside a single classroom studying for the college-entrance exam?
The answer might be found in another crucial element of qingchunpian: a startling number of the films depict the protagonist as an adult settled comfortably in the urban upper-middle-class, and horribly unhappy. Could it be that the disappointed romances in these films reflect a greater disappointment faced by members of the post-80s generation? The 1990s in China were a time of heady optimism, in which the rapid growth of the economy brought hundreds of millions of Chinese unprecedented upward social mobility. In recent years, though, the promise of that decade has started to sour. The neoliberal reforms undertaken in the second half of the 90s have caused housing prices in Chinese cities to soar, and healthcare can be prohibitively expensive. Meanwhile, a fourfold expansion of higher education has resulted in an overcrowded white collar job market with horribly low starting salaries. Young people increasingly find themselves crammed into apartment towers on the outer edges of the city, spending several hours a day commuting. Between overtime and subway time, they have little time to pursue their own interests or have a social life. By contrast, the forced camaraderie of test-preparation boot camp (and literal boot camp) that is high school might seem warm and appealing.
“Could it be that the disappointed romances in these films reflect a greater disappointment faced by members of the post-80s generation?”
Meanwhile, dating has turned into a spectacularly unromantic project. Because of the be-all-end-all importance of the college-entrance exam, high school students are prohibited from dating. In university, too, dating is often discouraged. After graduation, though, young people are expected to immediately start looking for a spouse. The only problem is that once in the workforce, these newly-minted white collars find that they have little time and few opportunities to meet someone. As a result, many Chinese young people meet their spouse through blind dates set up by friends or colleagues. Young men are also expected to purchase an apartment and a car – amenities that will guarantee their desirability on the marriage market. The result of all these pressures is that many young Chinese find themselves shunted into incompatible partnerships, and the divorce rate is skyrocketing. In contrast to this cynical dating scene, qingchunpian harken back to a time when you were allowed to fall in love with spontaneity, and without regard for the object of your affection’s socioeconomic status.
At the end of We Roared Past Youth, Beibing, remembering the freedom and possibility that colored the time she spent with Yu Yi, has a revelation: “This is not the life I wanted.” In a cathartic act, she quits her prestigious office job. The final scene of the film shows her finding a letter from Yu Yi, who has gone to pursue his dream of sailing around the world.
“The time I liked best,” he writes, “is still our teenage years.” ∎