Last year, I Am Not Madame Bovary premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the Special Presentations award from the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI) and would go on to win the top award at the San Sebastián International Film Festival as well as best director awards for Feng Xiaogang at the Golden Horse Film Festival and from the China Film Director's Guild.
A couple of weeks ago, TIFF presented the world premiere of Feng’s followup, Youth, slated to open on Friday in China, where it “was expected to dominate the charts over the Oct. 1 National Day holiday,” as Patrick Frater reports for Variety. “Instead, ticket sales have been halted. Chinese media reported a statement attributing the delay to ‘discussions with the Film Bureau and other parties.’ . . . Local media have been quick to suggest that the release is a casualty of the upcoming National Congress of the Communist Party of China. This highly symbolic political event occurs once every five years, and experience suggests that China’s rulers will crack down on dissent, discussion or any kind of controversy before and during the meeting.”
The Congress is “expected to give China’s president, Xi Jinping, five more years in power,” notes Chris Buckley in the New York Times. “Mr. Feng and his actors had been touring China, promoting the romantic drama set against the Cultural Revolution and China’s brief, harrowing war against Vietnam. . . . Mr. Feng said on Sunday that the release of Youth had been indefinitely postponed, meaning the premiere would not coincide with the holiday, one of the most popular weeks at the country’s cinemas. ‘Due to reasons that leave me no choice, the nationwide roadshow for Youth can only go this far,’ Mr. Feng said at a tearful news conference in Shanghai. ‘We have to say farewell to everyone before it even started, and I feel helpless.’”
“Mainland Chinese cinema is bloated with youth romances wallowing in ’90s nostalgia,” wrote Maggie Lee for Variety from Toronto, “yet this pivotal stage in life has never appeared as pure, beatific and cruel as depicted in Youth, the latest from Chinese box office king Feng Xiaogang. Tracking the tempestuous fates of a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) dance troupe from the Cultural Revolution to the ’90s, the film serves as a paean to idealism and endurance, yet the word ‘heart-breaking’ comes to mind scene after scene.”
“Feng’s slick production lends little texture to this group balancing familial separation, official ideology, sexual awakening, and rigorous training, suggesting only the barest hints of the grim times that lay for many outside the cloisters of such a community,” finds Notebook editor Daniel Kasman. “For much of the film, I longed for some healthy dose of the idiosyncratic dynamism of Jian Wen’s exuberant, conflicted drama of nostalgia for this same era, In the Heat of the Sun (1994).”
Screen’s Allan Hunter grants that what we have here is “a combination of virtuoso filmmaking and unrelenting schmaltz.” But “Chairman Mao’s death in 1976 is the catalyst for the most interesting passage of the film, as we gain a sense of old certainties crumbling away. Once obedient students start to answer back, respect for authority diminishes, forbidden items become available and materialism gains a foothold. There is a suggestion that, for all the hardships and restrictions they endured, the close-knit troupe may have experienced the best years of their lives during the nightmare of the Cultural Revolution.”
For Christopher Machell at CineVue, “the film's politics remain ambivalent, regretful of modernity and age, while simultaneously casting a wry glance over the idealized past.”
Update: The Metrograph in New York has tweeted word that, because Youth has been pulled “from over 5000 screens in China,” this cancellation “also prevents the opening of the film elsewhere in the world.” Not only will it not be showing at the Metrograph, then, but the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s plans to host Feng and the film for the Los Angeles premiere on November 3 may be in jeopardy, too.
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