I’m still young. Young enough that I can understand and generally relate to the characters in So Young, but also old enough to see just how silly they actually are. It’s an odd place to be, and it leaves me wishing I was a few years older. Being young, or so young, anyway, is overrated. The desire to recapture that magical age where nothing really matters seems to miss just how awful it is when nothing really matters. I’m past that, mostly, and I’m thankful for it. I look at some of my younger friends, still at that point, and they want more responsibility, to age and for things to mean something. The more realistic of them know that life doesn’t end in college.
So Young would disagree, choosing to believe that nothing really matters after college (or even high school, in some cases). What happens then are the defining moments and driving forces for the characters’ lives, ones that stick with them for years beyond. And that’s not cute or romantic.
It’s just sad.
[This review is being posted as part of our coverage of the New York Chinese Film Festival. All of our coverage can be found here.]
So Young (To Our Youth That Is Fading Away | 致我们终将逝去的青春)
Director: Zhao Wei
So Young stars a girl. That’s not in and of itself particularly noteworthy, but it’s important because it lets the film get away with something a male-centric film couldn’t: avoiding creepiness. It’s a romance, but in it a young girl, Zheng Wei, pines after a young man, Chen Xiaozheng. She’s pretty weird about it and she can get away with it, in a way, because she’s adorable and whatever, but what if the roles were reversed? What if Chen Xiaozheng was doing exactly what she did but pining after a girl? It would remove that cuteness and just make it weird. Like the Taiwanese film Make Up, the fact that the “aggressor” is female means that something kind of uncomfortable presents as cute and naïve rather than creepy. Eventually, Chen Xiaozheng relents, because of course he does, but it seems like a misunderstanding of human nature on the part of the filmmakers.
I would simply chalk it up to their youth, that being the driving force of so much of the film (shocking, I know), if it weren’t for an instance of actually-creepy stalker behavior later in the film. Inititally, it appears to be treated with some level of seriousness (even if that seriousness is kind of uncomfortable in its own right), but the ultimate message of that revelation is “threatening suicide is a totally acceptable way to make a man love you and stay with you.”
Which is, let’s be very clear, not okay. Maybe it’s a cultural thing (I know for a fact that I missed some things because I’m an ignorant American), but that’s a terrible message to send under any circumstances. Not okay.
So Young covers a pretty sizable timeline quickly, and it does so to varying degress of success. At the start, most of the characters are beginning their college careers, and they look about as young as I would expect them to look. Four years later, their time at the university has ended, and the only way to tell is that they talk about their time at university ending. Those four years play out over about an hour and a half, and time passages just happen without any indication. One moment, Zheng Wei is standoffishly rejecting a person and the next she’s borrowing DVDs from him. How did they get past that first barrier? Don’t know. And it doesn’t really matter after the fact, but in the moment it’s jarring.
In the film’s final act, the characters have all aged by a substantial amount, and… I have no idea how they did it. They take these people who look 17/18 and make them look late 20s/early 30s. Or maybe they take those who look late 20s/early 30s and make them look 17/18. I don’t know, but wherever that transformation took place it is truly breathtaking. In the first act, I never questioned that the actors were college age. If anything, I thought they were too young (see previous paragraph). But in that final act? I would have believed they were all late 20s/early 30s. The only reason I questioned it was because I’d spent the previous 90 minutes seeing them look so young. Whoever was supposed to age Adèle for Blue is the Warmest Color could learn a thing or two.
So Young is the debut feature from actress Zhao Wei, and I could kind of tell. Not necessarily in a bad way, but there are certain aspects of the visual style that just seemed like rookie mistakes (although “mistakes” isn’t quite the word…): The first is the way the camera moves. It’s almost always moving, up, down, in, out, doing all kinds of cool stuff. But sometimes it moves in ways that breaks the continuity in editing. Sometimes it just looks like something went slightly off course and no one realized it. It’s nothing horrendous, but it’s problematic in a way that doesn’t seem intentional. There was also something odd about motion in certain shots. It seemed like the frame-rate was something other than 24fps, or maybe the shutter speed had been changed. I don’t know if it was the film itself or the projection or just me losing it a little bit, but it happened with reasonable frequency. And maybe they were intentional decisions made by a rational director, but they didn’t seem to be.
Even so, So Young is freaking gorgeous. The use of lighting especially is spectacular, and the colors of the film are just wonderfully vibrant. I haven’t seen enough films from China proper to be able to make any kind of sweeping statements about its place in Chinese cinema, but it sure as hell doesn’t look like an American movie, and I mean that in the best way possible. The only real visual complaint I have stems from a few moments of truly, truly awful CGI. Like, early 2000s level bad.
So Young is like a generically pretty, young college student: nice to look at but ultimately empty. Its attempts at profundity are laughable and it doesn’t really know how to make a point. It throws weird things into conversations without any clear reason, and sometimes it has an emotional breakdown that doesn’t seem rationally motivated. The film’s characters exhibit these traits, so they clearly apply in Chinese colleges as well as American ones, but the film itself doesn’t need to fit that stereotype. Maybe it’s making some grand statement, but it’s not an interesting statement to make. I’m still young and even I get that.
But sometimes that pretty, young college student is fun to be around… in small doses. So Young may not have much to say, but it’s entertaining and worthwhile nonetheless. Also, it’s really pretty, and call me shallow, but I’m willing to forgive a lot from a movie that’s really pretty.