The fictional military performance troupe at the center of the Chinese film “Youth” edu-tains soldiers and peasants with songs extolling “red hearts and iron wills.” But the sweeping melodrama, set mostly in the 1970s, reveals that the young dancers and musicians are made of frailer stuff. Although their flaws are hardly shocking, their depiction alone may have been enough to halt the movie’s original Chinese release. After an 11-minute trim, “Youth” is getting a much smaller rollout at home and abroad.
The setting of the film is much like that of the naturalistic “Platform,” a thematically similar 2000 movie by Jia Zhangke that was a hit on the festival circuit. But “Youth’s” director, Feng Xiaogang (“I Am Not Madame Bovary”), has a livelier, more mainstream style than Jia, snaking his camera exuberantly though scenes that highlight colorful costumes, dynamic choreography and beautiful chorines.
One of those dancers is narrator Suizi (Zhong Chuxi), a character based on screenwriter Yan Geling, who adapted her own autobiographical novel about her years in an arts troupe. Her tale begins with the arrival of Xiaoping (Miao Miao), a new dancer who’s bullied by the mean girls. The central male character is Feng (Huang Xuan), an exemplary collectivist who later finds that his self-sacrifice is less admired in an increasingly Westernized China.
The film’s themes mature from adolescent pettiness to adult regret, with several epilogues set well after the main events of the story. In between is a startlingly brutal detour into the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War, with Suizi, Xiaoping and Feng on the front lines. There, they discover that the martial anthems they once sang are useless in actual combat, just as the political lessons they once taught are meaningless in an age in which Maoism has yielded to China’s brand of capitalism.
Unrated. At Regal’s Rockville Center Stadium 13. Contains bloody war violence. In Mandarin with subtitles. 135 minutes.