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So Young

So Young     So Young

(left) Maggie Jiang and Yang Zishan, and (right) Mark Chao are So Young.

Chinese: 致我們終將逝去的青春  
Year: 2013  
Director: Vicki Zhao Wei
Producer: Stanley Kwan Kam-Pang, Chen Rong
Writer: Li Qiang, Xin Yiwu (original novel)
Cast: Mark Chao, Yang Zishan, Han Geng, Maggie Jiang, Zhang Yao, Cya Liu, Wang Jiajia, Baobeier, Ryan Zheng Kai, Huang Ming, Tong Liya, Sun Wei, Cui Wenlu
The Skinny: Vicki Zhao's directorial debut starts strong but can't sustain its momentum. Zhao gets the most from her cast, and the emotions created are resonant and perfectly in keeping with her themes of youth and nostalgia. Too bad it ends so poorly.
by Kozo:

For her directorial debut So Young, Vicki Zhao goes back to school with sharp and frequently resonant feeling. Once she leaves school, however, it all falls apart. Based on a popular 2007 novel by author Xin Yiwu, So Young chronicles the late 80s-early 90s university times of a group of Chinese students, led by Zheng Wei (Yang Zishan), a country girl whose sassy ways and confidence in her own good looks cannot be denied. She and her roommates – angelic Ruan Guan (Maggie Jiang), fastidious Li Weijuan (Zhang Yao) and tomboy Xiaobei (Cya Liu) – become fast friends and their network of college buddies grows to include rich kid Kaiyang (Zheng Kai) and pretentious slob Zhang Kai (Baobeier). There are minor politics and affections amongst the friends, but the main focus is the relationship between Zheng Wei and Chen Xiaozheng (Mark Chao), a seemingly arrogant student who initially earns Zheng Wei’s ire.

The hate is temporary, however, and as love irrationally blossoms, the film soars to affecting heights. Belying her status as a neophyte director, Vicki Zhao demonstrates a keen handling of performance and character, and manages to establish each of her subjects despite giving them unequal screentime. Zheng Wei is a firecracker of a protagonist, and Yang Zishan makes her borderline delusional affection for Xiaozheng into something enjoyable and entertaining. Mark Chao does a fine job as Xiaozheng, nailing the character’s arrogance while subtly conveying cracks in his self-possessed mask. The sometimes awkward courtship between the two carries the film decently, while the other characters get limited but focused attention. Each is largely defined by one or two scenes, and the actors provide good support, with Cya Liu making an impression in one particular emotionally-charged scene. Thanks to its abundant youthful nostalgia and acute emotion, So Young mostly sings.

And then it doesn’t. So Young initially works by celebrating youth without canonizing it, mixing humor with pathos and even sudden moments of fantasy. However, once college ends, the film’s power drops sharply. One problem is the story’s supposed throughline, about Zheng Wei and lost love Li Jing (Han Geng). Zhang Wei initially followed Li Jing to university, but he disappeared mysteriously, leaving her to chase Xiaozheng. Li Jing turns up later, but in an offhand manner that’s deflating, and the film can’t lift his reasons for disappearing beyond their second-rate TV drama plotting. The film also attempts to reconnect with all its characters years later, but beyond simply seeing what everyone is up to, nothing substantial occurs. Some hanging plots are resolved while others move slightly forward, and one major event occurs that attempts to bring things to a climactic close. Unfortunately, the plot turns feel more arbitrary than essential.

As a debut directorial effort, So Young is a standout. The production is beautifully shot and designed, perfectly conveying the affection and longing that come with nostalgia. Vicki Zhao has an outstanding command of her film’s micro details; characters and emotions are well-defined and actors are given plenty of moments to, well, act. On a macro level, however, So Young stumbles. Its emotional themes feel entirely too one-note, with the whole film easily explained by its Chinese language title, translated as “To Our Youth that is Fading Away.” As the film scrambles in the final third, tying up its loose ends and nodding towards forgotten characters, it simply feels like it’s checking off a checklist. What are we supposed to feel? Bittersweet over lost years? Possible hope at reclaiming the past? Cruel irony at how things have changed? The film ultimately proves inconclusive, serving up a weak bookend to its very strong start. Still, So Young is a promising debut for Vicki Zhao as a filmmaker, and offers hope that she may one day accomplish more. (Kozo, 6/2013)

Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
Panorama (HK)
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Mandarin and Cantonese Language Tracks
Dolby Digital EX
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc
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