Youth (芳华) is a Chinese film by popular director Feng Xiaogang with a screenplay written by Geling Yan. The film follows a group of young people in a military art troupe in the People's Liberation Army during the Cultural Revolution, through the Sino-Vietnamese War in 1979, and on into middle age. It was the 6th highest-grossing domestic film of 2017 in China, and has won a number of awards at Asian film festivals. Youth and Feng Xiaogang also won Best Picture and Best Director at the first Marianas International Film Festival. So how has Youth ‘translated’ to the West? And I don’t mean its subtitles (these were adequate, though nowhere as idiomatic as Tony Ryan’s, in Jia Zhangke’s films). What interests me is what the ordinary film-goer, non-China-specialist, will make of it, what they are likely to take from it, and what will go right over their heads.
My gut feeling to start
with was that films are much more likely to ‘translate’ well than novels. We
all know that Chinese literature is finding it hard to go west, despite the
best efforts of writers and their translators. But surely a film, with a
relatively simpler story-line, luscious cinematography and gorgeous music and
dancing, will have universal appeal?
I decided to do a vox pop survey, and started my inquiries
at home. Literally, at home, with my husband and a friend: due to the vagaries
of late-night train services to the West Country, I had to leave the film
showing at London’s China Exchange half-way through, but a couple of days later
I got a DVD through the post (thank you, Matthew Hurst of Trinity Films). Youth is now available on Amazon and
Q: What did you enjoy?
A: Husband: the photography, it was beautiful, compelling…. but even though I knew about the
background, most of the time I didn’t have a clue what was going on.
A: Friend: I loved the music though I was surprised how western it sounded. And some of the dancing
Q: Did you find it sad?
A: Husband: Well, I knew
the Vietnam War was coming, so I knew horrible things were going to happen to
these people. I was reminded of A S Byatt’s novel about a group of young people
just before and during the First World War.
Q: Anything puzzle you?
A: Friend: Who was Lei
Feng? A sort of Jesus Christ figure? I thought they were taking the piss out of
Liu Feng by comparing him to Lei Feng….And I didn’t believe they were really
that sexually repressed. You sure young people weren’t having it off on the
A: Husband: I couldn’t tell the characters
apart. They were all dressed alike and the same age, with dancers’ bodies.
There are a number of different things going on in Youth – as you would expect in a film over two hours long that
spans several decades. As one comment that followed an American review of the film
put it: ‘Everything that happened leads to one thing: classism and class separation following China's conversion to capitalism. This is
something that plagues China to this day, and it is getting worse.’ So…. Xiaoping is at the bottom of the politico-social heap because her father is
still banged up doing re-education, while Shuwen, the
golden girl daughter of a general, goes from being young, beautiful and
privileged in 1976 to being middle-aged, rich and privileged in Hainan thirty
years later. Now that is something that completely passed over my pair of
Am I coming to the depressing conclusion that Chinese films that require a modicum of background knowledge and understanding of the culture will never ‘translate’ successfully to the west? Possibly, at least until westerners know more about China. Lawrence Walker, Yan Geling’s husband concurs. In an email to me, he wrote: ‘My first reaction is that Western audiences can appreciate the human drama, even if they
might be alienated by the utterly unfamiliar social, cultural and geographical
settings. Second, I think it is hard for any film based in a Chinese
context, especially one as culturally remote as the PLA and the Cultural
Revolution, to resonate entirely with a mainstream Western audience, except
perhaps for those audience members who grew up under some kind of Communist
system.’ Yan Geling, one of the authors writing in Chinese who is most widely-read in the west, is
interestingly sceptical about cross-cultural communication in general. In the
Chinafile interview, she says: ‘Even though I married an American, I still find
a lot of misplacement and misunderstanding of emotions. Words can be
understood, but not their connotations and implications.’
Does Feng Xiaogang care if his film isn’t a hit
outside China? When I asked a Chinese-Canadian friend this question, she
laughed: ‘Why should he care? Look at the box office figures, do the maths!’
Myself, I loved the film and its stars. OK, they were
all beautiful and squeaky clean, hardly representative of the population as a
whole, but then young dancers are chosen for their looks as well as their
abilities – think the American TV series, ‘Fame’. On second thoughts, maybe don’t.
Personally, as someone who was studying Chinese on the
other side of the world when all this was going on, I felt the pain of these
youths, living in a bubble, then brutally disabused of the ideals they’d grown
up with, plunged into a war that has been expunged from most history books, if
it was ever there in the first place. Yan Geling in an interview with Feng
Xiaogang says: ‘Youth captures all the rare experiences of our youth as
artists coming of age in the troupe. No one in any other country could have had
it, nor will ever have it.’ (Chinafile.com) I think Yan’s
words prove my point.