“Come on, its only History of Ancient Chinese Architecture! I grew up with ancient architecture next door!”
In actress Vicki Zhao’s directorial debut, a friend’s worry about being late for their Chinese architecture history class garners such a response from the female protagonist. To her, China’s history is simply history, detached from the emotional baggage often associated with the place known for the Tiananmen incident. While seemingly casual, the above remark tellingly reflects the direction of Zhao’s contemporary film about the youth and the general sentiments of young Chinese people in mainland today; one that has become almost culturally distant to the very traditions that once defined them yet harbour deep settled fears on growing up in a rapidly globalised China.
Based on the best-selling novel “To Our Youth that is Fading Away” by Xin Yiwult, adapted by Li Qiang (“The Postmodern Life of My Aunt“) and produced by Stanley Kwan, the film chronicles the rush of youth to adulthood, aptly set against the backdrop of a rural China quickly transforming into the fast-paced modern economic hub that we see today. Told through the lens of Zheng Wei, the female protagonist, we see her go through university life with her roommates and her encounter with Chen Hao Zheng who eventually becomes her boyfriend. However, 4 years later, Chen is forced to leave Wei to pursue his architecture studies abroad, killing Wei’s dreams of establishing a life together as a couple. From there, the story evolves into a slow-paced melodrama and shows what happens to their lives, as they adapt to the heavy realities of adulthood.
Unlike past trends of historical epics becoming the top hits with the mainland audience, the romantic comedy drama centered around a group of college students, “So Young” (2013), surprised critics by becoming a box office hit in China, surpassing even the Stephen Chow blockbuster “Journey To The West: Conquering the Demons”. The low-budget film even rose into the ranks of the top 10 grossing films in China’s cinematic history. What could possibly explain this phenomenon?
While So Young may come off as just another coming-of-age rom-com in a vein similar to Taiwanese hit Apple of my Eye and even US classics like Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club, such a description only touches the surface, wherein its success lies in how it thoughtfully conceals the much deeper and uncomfortable social issues it grapples with.
As a film released in 2013, we are looking at a young Chinese audience who have grown up in a booming urban China, without the experience of what pre-affluent China was like unlike the older generations. As a much more liberal and westernised group, today’s China Chinese are more receptive to the west and its by-products, from western luxury brands to western entertainment. No doubt, technology has played a major role in exposing western culture to them as well. In this light, Zhao’s film’s feeds into their globalised mindsets with its female protagonist, Wei, who believes in chasing her own dreams rather than follow the convention of “study hard, be successful” as preached by one of her room mates. In another scene, she takes over the school stage and does a rendition of Hacken Lee Hak-kan’s Canto-pop mega hit Red Sun to declare her love to Chen. Wei’s individuality and relaxed attitude appears to be a far cry from the generations of Chinese who believed fervently in nationalism, conservative behavior and most of all, success. It is almost as if Wei was not Chinese but her character may very well describe most of the Chinese youth today, physically tied to their homeland but with a mindset that has very much been influenced by western ideas. So Young appeals to this audience through Wei and her awareness of Chinese conventions as a Chinese and what she makes of them (be it good or bad) in the era of a globalised China.
One may be quick to think of the film as building on Hollywood’s success of romantic comedy dramas. Throughout the film, the characters constantly mention the 90s UK band Suede and the film even includes one of their songs as though trying to show its western appeal. The characters also seem to be fond of western entertainment as seen by the posters in their dorms. (above) Indeed, the film does take upon some non-traditionally Chinese elements such as having a rather aggressive female in the form of Wei chasing the heart of the very much passive male, Chen, instead of the usual narrative of an active male pursuing an agenda. In addition, Ruan’s boyfriend is also seen as being passive to her and in a rather unconventional scene, riding on the back of her bicycle in the start of the film.
In fact, the film also makes multiple attempts to directly point out the gender differences, with a constant emphasis on Wei being a girl. At one point, Chen mentions how he would have “done more if you (Wei) weren’t a girl” and how Wei playfully uses this trope to her benefit. Unsurprisingly, a poster of Ruan Ling Yu, an iconic female actress in Chinese cinema who was said to best represent women, is pasted on their dorm wall. Yet, one must bear in mind that for China, “the concept of a national cinema has almost invariably been mobilized as a strategy of cultural (economic) resistance, a means of asserting national autonomy in the face of (usually) Hollywood’s international domination.”¹ So how does So Young’s appeal, which adapts certain western elements, fit into the concept of Chinese cinema? This is where Zhao’s careful approach in dealing with social issues in her film really shines.
“Because we in the mainland didn’t have a youth,” Zhao says. “We were all busy being hard-working in our youthful years. We were studying hard, working hard, getting married and buying a flat, and striving to give the best education to our children. The pressure of trying to survive is so heavy in China.”
Indeed, part of So Young’s appeal lies in its almost rosy portrayal of college life that offers an escapism to many of the Chinese both young and old who contend with the hard hitting social convention of working hard and raising a family. However, they are unable to voice their pain out openly or face the consequences of being labeled as a societal failure. Its light-hearted start allows for the viewers to relate to these issues by viewing the interactions between the various characters (the practical Li Weijuan vs. the idealistic Zheng Wei) from a third party perspective without the uneasy feeling that comes from facing the issues by themselves or through the forced emotional appeal that past Chinese films make use of. Basically, Zhao has managed to use western film elements that appeal to many of today’s Chinese youth as an accessible channel to talk about these social issues that most Chinese do not feel comfortable openly talking about in the heavily controlled state.
A more interesting but easily missed example of how Zhao dissects today’s China would the emphasis on ethnic minorities. Firstly, the character of Ruan Guan, one of Wei’s roommate, has her origin as a Buyi ethnic minority clearly emphasized from the start and used as a distinction to explain her beauty from the rest. It is interesting how Zhao brings up the idea of ethnic minorities and places it on the “popular” girl. In another scene, when Wei seeks for background information on Chen, his identity as a Han Chinese is clearly brought up. The common outsider’s view of China is that of one single homogenous Chinese community yet Zhao reminds us that there are different Chinese apart from Han Chinese through its variety of ethnic minorities in a scene that could have done without such background information. Seen in a transnational context, it could be that while So Young may follow a romantic comedy trend popularized by western cinema and be seen as a well-disguised social criticism of Chinese culture, it still seeks to retain certain significant parts of Chinese culture. It is this aspect of Zhao’s film that perhaps most Chinese relate to and can be attributed to its success. While globalisation and comparisons to the west have brought about further discontentment regarding the social issues faced at home, the Chinese still care about China at the very end and want to remain in China despite their changed mindsets.
¹Friedman, Lester D. “Waving the Flag: Constructing a National Cinema in Britain Andrew Higson.” Film Quarterly 49.4 (1996): 62-64. Print.
Lu, Sheldon H. Transnational Chinese Cinemas: Identity, Nationhood, Gender. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1997.