China’s latest blockbuster cautiously tests censorship limits about Sino-Vietnamese war

By Yang Sheng Source:Global Times Published: 2017/12/26 18:33:39

Critics divided over historical romance despite box office success

Director Feng Xiaogang's new film Youth depicts the "princeling" class of soldiers from the Cultural Revolution (1966-76)

Many elderly Chinese who watched the movie do not share the same memories as its writer and director

A 10-minute scene from the long-forgotten Sino-Vietnamese war is being praised by veteran soldiers

Female soldiers of a military art troupe practice dancing in the film Youth. Photo: VCG

It is not usual to see in China's cinemas so many sensitive topics, including the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the Sino-Vietnamese war (1979) and the 1-million disarmament of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) in the 1980s, touched on in one single film. But Youth, a new film directed by Feng Xiaogang, which is currently being screened across the country, shines a light on these "taboo" periods.

The film immediately gained widespread attention after its debut and became a blockbuster. This past weekend, Youth (Fanghua in Chinese), grossed over 800 million yuan ($122 million) at the box office. Chinese moviegoers from different generations have contributed to Youth's overnight success.

For those citizens born after the 1990s, they said they hoped to learn about the "forgotten history" not mentioned in their school textbooks or to understand more about their parents' lives. For the middle-aged and the elderly born after the 1950s, they simply wanted to revisit the memories of their tumultuous youth.

Despite its success, the movie itself remains controversial. In general, audiences who praised the film said that maybe it will compel selfish modern society to pay more respect to Chinese citizens who struggled through the 1970s and 1980s. Critics, however, blasted the story as "unrealistic and one-sided."

Middle-aged Chinese, the film's key demographic at the box office, are of course most qualified to evaluate the authenticity of Youth, as they themselves lived through the era. According to ticket-tracking platform Maoyan, more than 35 percent of the movie's audiences this past weekend were over 45 years old. In the north, south and southwest regions of China, this demographic accounted for over 50 percent of ticket sales.

Feng's movie is a historical narrative adapted from a namesake novel, written by female Chinese writer Yan Geling (also the screenplay writer). The movie chronicles the experiences of a group of teenagers who served in a military art troupe in Southwest China between the 1970s and the 1990s. During this time, they experienced love, lust, betrayal and struggle.

Princelings of PLA

The film's main characters, Liu Feng and He Xiaoping, also participated in the Sino-Vietnamese war of 1979 and became (fictional) national heroes. After the war, they and other members of the art troupe were honorably discharged from the PLA. They then stepped into new lives during China's reform and opening-up era of the 1980s and 1990s.

In the film, He's father was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, which was why she hoped to become a PLA soldier, so that no one would dare to bully her. But once she joined the military art troupe, other "princelings" (soldiers from prominent family backgrounds) humiliated and bullied her about her humble upbringing.

"Maybe Feng and Yan have their own memories, but when I was a soldier, bullying was very unusual in the military. Also, princelings of that era kept a low profile due to strict discipline in order to prevent the impact of the Cultural Revolution from escalating into the PLA," said Gao, who was brought to the cinema by her daughter Lingling, a 27 year-old Beijing resident.

Both Feng and Yan were part of a PLA art troupe at that time, so the film is largely based on their own personal experiences.

"The military art troupe was very different from other troops in the PLA of that era. It was a place full of princelings and a safe zone from the Cultural Revolution," a retried PLA officer surnamed Wei, 60, who served in a military art troupe in the former Beijing Military Region of the 1970s, told the Global Times.

"Revolutionary propaganda was an important mission for the military in that era, so we enjoyed a safer environment and better material lives than others. Unlike combat troops, which had to execute dangerous missions and conduct toilsome drills, all we did was practice dancing, singing and playing musical instruments," Wei added.

Indeed, in the movie, the lives of those in the military art troupe, who indulge in dumplings, chocolate and ice cream, are in stark contrast to those ordinary Chinese citizens suffering from food shortage and poor economic development. And unlike other military soldiers, males and females in the art troupe closely interact with each other.

Unqualified to educate

"I don't share the same memories as Feng Xiaogang and Yan Geling," a Shanghai-based public servant surname Li, who was a zhiqing (a term referring to educated youth who were sent down to the countryside for hard labor) during the Cultural Revolution, told the Global Times.

"In that era, most teenagers, especially educated youth, including some of our current leaders, were working in the countryside with low living standards. They had no chance to eat ice cream or chocolate. Even meat and rice were treasures for them," Li said.

"Feng and Yan enjoyed the best material lives during that most difficult era of China, and now they are trying to educate our youth with their memories. But they can't represent the 1950s generation and they are not qualified to educate the next generation about the history of the Cultural Revolution," Li added.

The Cultural Revolution is still a very sensitive period of Chinese history. Even though the Communist Party of China has honestly acknowledged that it was a serious mistake, Chinese textbooks contain little content regarding this part of history.

However, the Sino-Vietnamese war does not appear in any current Chinese schools' textbooks. Thus, many youth today are far more curious about that period than they are about the Cultural Revolution. "For people my age, most don't know that China had a war with Vietnam 40 years ago," Gao told the Global Times.

The South Theater Command of the PLA published a film review of Youth on its WeChat account over the weekend, stating that any movie mentioning the Sino-Vietnamese war will experience strict censorship, but it didn't specify what kind of censorship it will face. The article praised Feng's courage to use a realistic approach to depict the war. The article was later removed from its WeChat account.

Youth was originally set to premier on September 29, but was suddenly delayed a few days before its debut, which many speculated was because it touched upon sensitive topics including the Sino-Vietnamese war. Some scenes were also reported to have been deleted from the original film.

Honoring fallen soldiers

For audience older than 45 years, especially those living in Southwest China's Yunnan Province and South China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, the war is still quite clear in their memories. Both regions border Vietnam and were front lines during the Sino-Vietnamese war.

"All (younger generations) know is that we had some border conflicts, but no further details," Gao said. "The fact is that many Chinese soldiers sacrificed their lives for our country during that war, so I hope young people my age will remember and honor them."

Although Youth only featured 10 minutes of a small group of PLA who were ambushed by Vietnamese soldiers and then launched a counter attack during a skirmish, many viewers felt this was the most attractive part of the movie.

"I watched the trailer, which showed this battle, so I decided to buy a ticket, because this was the first time I'd heard about the Sino-Vietnamese war," Shen Yan, 23, a university student studying in Guangxi's capital Nanning, told the Global Times.

Yet many critics say the movie failed to explain much about the background of the war. "It shows the cruelty of war, but only for 10 minutes. And without this part, the rest of the movie is just a boring story about a military art troupe," a war veteran surnamed Zhao, 57, from Guangxi told the Global Times.

"My comrades and I think this part (about the Sino-Vietnamese war) was the only reason why it was praised by audiences," Zhao added.

"Without that 10-minute scene, Youth is just another love movie. But because of the war clip, it becomes a great film combining idealism and revolutionary heroism," the now-deleted South Theater Command of the PLA review said.

Newspaper headline: Conflicting memories

Posted in: IN-DEPTH

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