So Young ★★★★

A much better version of Summer Palace is this, the directorial debut of actress Zhao Wei. Based on a popular novel by Xin Yiwu (and also on some of Zhao's own experiences), the film was wildly successful at the Chinese box office, one of the highest-grossing movies of 2013. The romantic complications of a group of college kids, four girls, four boys, at an architectural school in China sometime in the 1990s. It focuses on one pair, the clever and independent Zhang Wei (played by Yang Zishan) and the determined and aloof Chen Xiaozheng (played by Mark Chao, who successfully took on the Andy Lau role in Tsui Hark's Young Detective Dee), filtering the stories of the other schoolmates into the margins. The central romance is well done, the conflict, ultimately being class-based: Chen grew up poor and very much wants to be rich, girls can only distract him from that mission. Most of the other conflicts in the film revolve around the same issue. We see snippets of the students' hometowns (rural/industrial, grey, poor) that are contrasted in the final third of the film (taking place seven years after graduation) with the sleek modernity of 21st century China's hyper-capitalist urban hotspots.

It's in that final third that things begin to fall apart, but not so much to wreck the film. We see flashbacks to scenes that were missing in the first section of the film, filling in details and solving mysteries (but not all of them). Heiward Mak uses much the same technique in Uncertain Relationships Society, but her stories fit together more seamlessly, her attention to her massive cast of characters is more diffuse, such that every one is fully-developed, whereas some of the minor characters in Zhao Wei's film end up being neglected. Reportedly Zhao's original cut was three hours long, so perhaps in the fuller version of the film this isn't a problem.

Still, Zhao elicits a great set of performances from her young and largely inexperienced cast (Yang Zishan in particular is a star in the making). The film lurches in style from CGI princess fantasy to hand-held shakycam, neither of which extreme entirely works, but for the most part Zhao keeps things light and elegant, the bold colors of modern Chinese digital cinema only occasionally falling victim to the creeping plague of Hollywood teal and orange.

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