Grossing over 115 million USD, the Chinese film “So Young” was already a huge hit in China when it premiered in New York as part of the 4th Chinese New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center. The film is based on a best-selling novel and was the directorial debut of Chinese mega-celebrity, the famed actress Zhao Wei, who introduced the film at the screening and answered questions from adoring fans afterwards.
With such prestigious and high profile associations, “So Young” was destined to attract attention upon release –and it feels like whether that attention would be positive or derisive gave the filmmakers a certain sense of anxiety that resulted in an enjoyable but also bloated, frenetic, and schizophrenic movie.
The familiar coming-of-age premise focuses on Zheng Wei, a young college student with an inexplicably obsessive crush on an architecture student from a poor family named Chen Xiaocheng. The story begins with a stage of courtship in which Zheng Wei tortures and bullies Chen Xiaocheng –to such an extent that I immediately feared that bunnies would be boiled by the second act. When Chen Xiaocheng justifiably tells the girl to stop screwing up his life, she asserts that she is romantically taken with him, and stares him down vehemently. As a result of this vehemence, the boy reluctantly enters into a relationship with her, and they continue to date for the rest of their college years.
If this odd tossed salad of cause and effect puzzles you, then I am afraid to say that you are alone, my friend. At least, as alone as you can be in a theatre full of Chinese people, who laughed gleefully and sighed wistfully at all the times that the movie seemed to want them to. They also talked at regular, non-whispering, volumes through the entire film, in equal parts to their companions as well as the assorted individuals who called them on their cell phones (ringers on).
Around the central love story are several college friends of Zheng Wei. In addition to commenting on her liaisons with her crush, they also live their own young lives in the wasteful, heady, naive way that such lives are lived. It is here that the film becomes more compassionate, human, and interesting –subtle, even. For instance, in the handling of a female character who acts and dresses like a boy, the film never once attempts to rationalize away the gender dynamic within this character. Similarly, a class clown-type figure who seems to always be having a ball of a time in college turns out, years later, to be a rather pathetic failed entrepreneur. The film delivers the inevitable ironies of lives viewed over the passage of time plainly, without judgement or over-explanation. As a result, these moments land with the most impact.
With its overuse of crane shots (something I have never been prompted to notice before in a film), “So Young” at times feels like each scene was shot from an infinite number of angles. The quick jump shots scamper over the beautiful, questioning faces of the young actors like sunlight darting over the magnificent leaves of a tree in the wind. Bawdy toilet humor of the “American Pie” variety is inserted unceremoniously between fairytale reenactments (?) and hazy, fuzzy, romantic montages of a fourteen year-old’s idea of adulthood. Which is all to say, that the film itself, with all of its oddities and peculiarities, is much like youth itself –messy, unorthodox, filled to the rim with ardent intention and curious execution. At the end of the day, it’s hard to dislike something that just wants to live happily ever after, something that is, alas, so young.