Well here is a funny thing. Whilst the rest of the world was being blown away (quite rightly IMHO) by Iron Man 3 (even with its extra Chinese sequences), it turns out a quite different film was fighting its way to the top of the Chinese Box Office. What is more surprising is that it was the Directorial debut of Vicky Zhao
Based on the Li Quiang’s Novel “To Our Youth that is Fading Away”, “So Young” is set in a Chinese University in the early 1990’s (the English title is referring to the song by Suede that is a favourite of a couple of our characters, and later provides a link to one of their final fates). Zheng Wei (Yang Zishan) is a feisty young girl who has come to this university to be with her older childhood sweetheart, only to find he has gone off to the USA. She soon however links up with her eclectic bunch of roommates: the beautiful Ruan Guan (Jiang Shuying) who is from a small ethnic group and utterly devoted to her absolute heel of a boyfriend; the somewhat annoying, nosy and neatness obsessed Li Weijuan (Zhang Yao); and the tomboy with a temper Zhu Xiaobei (Liu Yase). She is pursued by the rather wacky Zhang Tianran (Bao Beier) and the rich Xu Kaiyan (Zheng Kai), but is eventually besotted (although via an initial repulsion) by the somewhat dedicated and stand-offish Chen Xiaozheng (Mark Chao). The film follows the lives and small adventures and relationships of this group during their college years, before moving forward 3 years to catch up with them post University.
With its large cast and nostalgic feel, this one is very much in the vein of “You are the Apple of My Eye”, albeit with a more female centred cast. Debutant Zhao (although with the number of producers in the opening credits nearly matching the giant cast, you have to say she must have had help) creates a gorgeous and I assume accurate world, full of both period detail and the occasional glimpse into fairy-tale fantasy. For a film that is mostly people talking, she manages to always keep what is in shot interesting, with clever shot design and smart, unusual camera angles.
All the female cast are pretty excellent, with Yang Zishan standing out as the difficult and feisty Zheng Wei and Jiang Shuying giving her character, who could have been little more than a flower vase, a underlying strength. The male cast are not bad either, but suffer from either being thinly drawn caricatures, or simply too bland to care for too much.
It is an impressive debut feature, and on the whole I thought it was rather super, but I did have a couple of issues, both of which could well be derived from the source material itself. First, Liu Yase gives a great performance as the Tomboyish Zhang, but her story feels under examined, and she disappears far too early. More vitally though is the final act, set some 3 years into the future. The segue into this time does not feel natural, and it does affect the viewers connection with what is going on, halting what went before far too suddenly. It also doesn’t seen to be set far enough in the future for us to see how these people have changed and grown (or reduced) once they have left the nest of University. It even looks much more like 15 years have passed rather than a mere 3.
“So Young” is an attractive, worthwhile and endearing debut picture, that sadly just fails to achieve greatness because of that awkward final act. However, there is so much to enjoy most of the time it would be churlish of me to be too hard on it. Therefore… Recommended.