The Erotic Undercurrents of Growing Up

in 52nd Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival

by Xiao-Yi Yu

The Chinese film Young Love Lost was nominated for Best New Director at the 52nd Golden Horse Awards, presented on 21 November 2015. In June, it was also selected for the Asian New Talent Award at the 18th Shanghai International Film Festival. Adapted from the novel Young Babylon, this film has been granted a screening permit in China, but has not yet had its commercial release, making it one of the most anticipated works by a new Chinese talent.

The film is a portrait of Dai, a fictional city (filming took place in Qindao, China). The protagonist Lu Xiaolu (Dong Zijian) works at a chemical engineering institute and falls in love with a young female doctor. The story has two parts: one shows Lu’s experiences as he shifts between different departments, beginning with following Master Niu, then switching to changing bulbs and carrying raw materials. Each shift brings about the appearance of new characters and events. The other storyline is the romance between Lu and the doctor Bai Lan. Unfortunately, this part concludes somewhat predictably: the two arrange to leave town together, but Lu is unable to make it when he rescues a colleague from being sexually assaulted.

The beauty of the film is that it reflects on two themes: the first is its depiction of an era. 1994 is a time for economic reform after the political turmoil in China. Many employees of government-owned corporations are laid off; the father in the film is offered a pay-out to induce him to resign. This is a vigorous and tumultuous time, when every character seems very vivid, even the unscrupulous leaders. Director Xiang Guoqiang incorporates many of the cultural markers of the period, notably the music: Black Panther’s “Shameful” (1992) and Zhang Chu’s “Dear Sister” (1991) are both masterpieces of Chinese rock. Some of the film’s dialogue appropriates the lyrics of Zhang Chu’s “Love”.

The other theme is an eroticized cinephilia. The film is saturated with hormones: there is a bounty of fleshy girls who look as if they have walked off a Fellini set. The voyeurism and the sexually suggestive dialogue challenge the limits of censorship. The English title might better be expressed as Young Love Lust than Young Love Lost. The love story is a tribute to Jiang Wen’s film In the Heat of the Sun (1994): the name Lu Xiaolu resembles that of the Jiang film’s protagonist, Ma Xiaojun. The shot where Lu walks on a wall is a copy of Ma’s stroll on a rooftop, while the female lead Bai Lan is very similar to Jiang’s leading lady, who is also slightly older than the protagonist and lives alone. The discussions between the two main characters and the rejection by the girl also seem to reference In the Heat of the Sun.

This film does have faults: it offers a very partial and scattered view of events. The information and illustrative details lack coherence. The director has tried to put everything into his shots, but these fascinating elements fail to adhere to one another. Nevertheless, I was excited by the performance of Dong Zijian, who also appears in Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart and has been nominated for best leading actor in Liu Jie’s De Lan. With remarkable performances in three distinctive films, Dong is surely the rising star of Chinese-language cinema.

Edited by Lesley Chow