A lyrical ode to youth at its most fearless and foolhardy, “So Young,” the helming debut of one of China’s best-known actresses, Vicki Zhao (“Painted Skin: The Resurrection,” “Shaolin Soccer”), is accomplished on technical and dramatic levels. Harnessing a topnotch crew that includes Hong Kong master Stanley Kwan as producer, Zhao’s ’90s college romance throbs with an urgency and elan that mirror her protagonists’ heady experiences with first love. Even though the film’s momentum is halted by a messy coda, its overall exuberance will linger with the female target audience. Boffo domestic B.O. is still going strong, and the pic should shine in Asia-friendly markets beyond.
Having earned approximately $114 million locally in a little more than a month, Zhao’s Beijing Film Academy graduation assignment reveals a sure grasp of filmmaking fundamentals developed over the course of a 15-year acting career, yet still boasts the fresh voice of a newcomer. Zhao’s casting choices are particularly astute, as she offsets the star power of Taiwanese A-lister Mark Chao (“Monga”) and mainland pop idol Han Geng (“My Kingdom”) with the freshness of two lesser-known female leads, Yang Zishan and Jiang Shuying. The resulting performances offer a diverting mix of charisma and offbeat candor that only get dampened in the last 30 minutes.
The screenplay, adapted from Xin Yiwu’s romance novel “To Our Youth That Is Fading Away,” bears the hallmarks of scribe Li Qiang’s style in the way it depicts the Deng Xiaoping era with vivid detail and a nostalgic sense of yearning. The film strikes a magical note at the outset with an opening dream sequence that projects Zheng Wei (Yang) as several fairy-tale heroines; in her childlike imagination, she is both poor little match girl and spoiled princess. In reality, she’s a civil-engineering student newly arrived at a university in Nanjing, where she’s assigned to share a room with alabaster beauty Ruan Guan (Jiang), tomboy Zhu Xiaobei (Cya Liu Yase) and neat-freak Li Weijuan (Zhang Yao). Zheng catches the eye of goofball Zhang Tianran (Bao Beier) and rich kid Xu Kaiyan (Zheng Kai), but gets competitive with campus goddess Ruan.
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Zheng’s real motive for choosing this college is to be near her childhood crush, a final-year student named Lin Jing (Han). Before she even has a chance to find him, however, he leaves to study in America; heartbroken, Zheng confides in Ruan, who proves surprisingly supportive. Later, visiting Xu one night, Zheng unintentionally gets into an argument with his roommate, architecture major Chen Xiaozheng (Chao), and the two become sworn enemies. When she’s unable to get him out of her mind, she realizes that she’s fallen in love with him.
Although the story’s various emotional entanglements are drawn from standard romantic tropes, the characters’ innocence and spontaneity, observed here with sympathetic irony, keeps the scenario from devolving into banality. Plunging headlong into love, Zheng is like a sweeter, less calculating version of the saucy, go-getting heroines seen in hit Chinese romantic comedies such as “Sophie’s Revenge” and “Finding Mr. Right.” Sure, she’s self-absorbed and temperamental. But considering the story is set in socially conservative early-’90s China, Zheng’s shenanigans, whether she’s making a scene to annoy Chen or throwing herself into his arms, manifest a level of courage and idealism in tune with the spirit of reform that’s shaking up the country. Yang, a force to be reckoned with, carries the film confidently.
Other distaff characters are also granted fuller personalities than one would normally expect from such supporting roles. In one wrenching episode, in which she bails out her wimpy, unfaithful b.f. (Huang Ming), Ruan demonstrates unexpected resilience and stoical devotion, belying her placid exterior. Meanwhile, hot-blooded Zhu, who can’t stand being looked down on, stands in memorable contrast to the shrewd, money-minded Li; both characters hail from impoverished backgrounds, and they embody different ways in which people of their generation deal with growing class chasms.
The acting is nuanced and involving across the board, although the male actors have a hard time making their mark, as they’re all playing hopeless wusses here. Chao fares best as the romantic lead, walking an intriguingly ambiguous line between nerdy and arrogant, aspirational and self-serving.
For 90 minutes, “So Young” has the spry, elegant pacing of a waltz, tightly embracing the viewer in its depiction of all-consuming love. Just when the drama reaches a high point with the characters’ graduation, however, the narrative jumps ahead three years; it’s cleare Zhao intends to show youthful dreams crushed by rat-race reality, but it takes a lumbering 40 minutes to get the message across. Peripheral figures suddenly emerge to haunt the main characters, but it’s too late for the audience to become invested in them, and the gratuitous plot complications and excessive dialogue become emotionally exhausting.
Visually, there’s a stark contrast between the lustrous, vibrant colors of the campus scenes and the wintry, monotonous hues of the post-college era, practically severing the story into two films. Tech credits are otherwise excellent, especially Li Yang’s production design, which paints a charmingly retro picture of the grubby, crowded dorms and canteens of a Chinese university in the ’90s; the sets and city shots in the later reels have an anachronistic, contempo look. Dou Peng’s melodic string score, sparingly used, accentuates the film’s classical feel.