An up-to-the-minute look at the pressure-cooker environment of Beijing high schoolers prepping for college entry, “Young Style” is one of the most charming films of its kind. Mainland helmer Liu Jie eschews the arthouse trappings of his litigation-themed works “Courthouse on Horseback” (2006) and “Judge” (2009) in favor of relaxed spontaneity, treating teen crushes and schoolboy friendships without corniness or moralizing. The tightly written pic skips along breezily with hardly a dramatic lull, and should be welcomed by fests open to more mainstream work. The absence of a starry cast, however, may limit local B.O.
Chinese films have often depicted first love in conflict with academic goals; the most accomplished examples are all set during the transitional years after the Cultural Revolution and before full-scale economic reform, such as Wang Xiaoshui’s “Shanghai Dreams” (2005), Xie Dong’s “One Summer with You” (2006) and Zhang Yimou’s “Under the Hawthorn Tree” (2010). Even the current crop of early ’90s campus-set hits, like Vicky Zhao’s “So Young” and Peter Chan’s “American Dreams in China,” carry this strain of wistful nostalgia.
Though Liu cites Wang’s “Beijing Bicycle” (2001), which he lensed, as an influence, “Young Style” stands apart from its precursors for the utterly contempo manner in which its youthful protags relate to adults and to their peers. Liu, who reportedly engaged in 14 months of field work in high schools, vividly portrays an age group that, unlike past generations, is untouched by any historical or political upheaval, and therefore seems more naive in some ways, yet more sophisticated in others.
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The dramatic opener sees 16-year-old Ju Ran (Dong Zijian) announcing “Today, I’m in love” as he plunges from the railing outside his window. Rewind to his high-school graduation photo session five days earlier: Standing before his graduting high-school class, 16-year-old Ju Ran (Dong Zijian) recites a speech, really a love manifesto, to Jingjing (An Jing), whom he’s secretly worshipped for three years. They run away hand-in-hand but are stopped in their tracks by Ju’s mom, Wenli (Yong Mei), who scathingly rebukes Jingjing for jeopardizing her son’s future. Surprisingly, the 18-year-old girl’s retort proves even more caustic, and becomes the catalyst for Ju’s reckless act five days later, which he fortunately survives.
Ju takes his college entrance exams in a state of lovestruck distraction, and becomes the only student in his class to fail. Jingjing, on the other hand, is accepted by the prestigious Fudan U. in Shanghai, and Ju vows to get admitted there next year to be near her. With wry humor, Liu recounts a magical experience for Ju, in which the humiliation of having to repeat his final year is gradually assuaged by new friendships, greater follies and even a cute admirer, Xiaofan (Qie Lutong).
Despite its characters’ varying romantic attitudes — Ju’s childish fixation, Jingjing’s self-possessed coquettishness and Xiaofan’s coy infatuation — the film’s foremost preoccupation is with the school system. Teachers give speeches in which they hilariously insist that getting into a top university is the be all and end all of life, while parents often bear the brunt of their children’s academic performance — “Even divorce can wait,” ordered the headmaster.
Although it drolly mocks this sort of collective exam obsession, the film faithfully depicts China’s competitive society and avoids contriving any easy resolution, concluding instead that unless they’re fabulously rich or well connected, students have no choice but to keep their noses to the grindstone. Hence, the central relationship here is really that between Ju and his mom; his growing acceptance of her expectations and his parents’ marital problems mark his coming of age.
Sobering as this sounds, “Young Style” also celebrates the students’ boundless, fun-loving energy, which breaks out no matter how their elders try to tame it. Anchoring the appealing cast is promising young lead Dong, who limns the comical and serious sides of Ju’s puppy love with equal conviction. The supporting actors are assigned rather stereotyped roles by comparison, such as the spoiled rich boy (Jiang Xueming), the budding queer (Gao Haoyuan), the hard-working peasant boy (Li Tianhao) and the dorky clown (Tan Chufeng). Nevertheless, the amateur thesps pull it off with natural charisma and sparky, improvised dialogue.
But the dramatic anchor of the film is Qin as Ju’s homeroom teacher, Ms. Sa, who’s the embodiment of tough love. It’s a performance that could easily have slid into caricature, but while Ms. Sa projects a sardonic exterior, she also makes her concern for her class discernible. Her finest moment comes in her revelatory farewell speech, in which she gives an impassioned defense of her teaching methods.
The film is elegantly lensed by Zhang Hao and precisely edited by Hou Hsiao-hsien regular Liao Ching-song, with a profusion of lush closeups of fresh faces, or shots of the boys’ naked torsos, which accentuate their vitality and budding sexuality. Other craft contributions are fine except an overly cheery score whose beats are noticeably dated.