Well, it’s been a while hasn’t it? Since my last review, I’ve been busy settling into the sunny Silicon Valley and #disrupt-ing very hard. That also means my propensity to review Chinese tragi-romances set in New York has all but dissipated…well….not exactly.
Chinese singer and all-around entertainment star He Jiong brings us Forever Young (栀子花开, lit. Gardenias in Blossom), yet another modern-day Chinese coming-of-age tragi-romance. Named after his eponymous musical hit Gardenias in Blossom, Forever Young brings together Li Yifeng as Xu Nuo, an aspiring musician who is the lead vocalist for a scrappy start-up band, and the model Zhang Huiwen as his girlfriend and aspiring ballerina Yan Xi.
Forever Young begins as most coming-of-age stories do: a group of cheerful youth celebrating their soon-to-be graduation, only to be hit by misfortune as someone’s girlfriend or boyfriend moves to somewhere far away. In this case, rather than New York, Forever Young chooses to highlight Yan Xi’s desire to dance ballet in Paris. When Yan Xi finds out she wasn’t accepted into the prestigious program, she bursts into tears — and from here the story quickly gets dark. Yan Xi casts away her friends and fellow ballerina-aspirants in her teary tantrum, only to apologize and call them back for dance practice; however, they tragically all die in a car accident on the way back. All of this happens in the first twenty minutes of the film, creating an emotional roller-coaster-y start to what ends up being a lackluster piece.
Xu Nuo, as the good boyfriend, struggles to find a way to help Yan Xi overcome her depression. Ultimately his bandmates decide to take up ballet and perform the quartet Dream Night that Yan Xi and her friends were originally supposed to perform together. And while this appears to be the main storyline, He Jiong seems to get sidetracked by side stories that distract from the audience experience rather than contribute to it. For example, a competing band’s lead guitarist tries to steal Xu Nuo away as their vocalist — and what was initially a demonstration of solidarity on Xu Nuo’s part with his brothers-in-music quickly becomes an entire side-plot that lasts for the remainder of the film as the competing band plots to break Xu Nuo away from his friends, with an unclear resolution to boot.
What bothered me the most about Forever Young, however, was how Yan Xi transformed from the central character in the film to a side-character. Yan Xi’s recovery from losing her friends in a tragic car accident could have made for a powerful story in and of itself, but for one reason or another, He Jiong elected to cast the spotlight on Xu Nuo, whose greatest tragedy in the film was hearing that his girlfriend wanted to move to Paris. The lack of character development and often nonsensical advancement reduced the film’s power and dis-engaged the audience.
It was never very clear what Forever Young was trying to communicate to its audience — parts of it felt like a remake of Secret (a Jay Chou romance in a music school), but while music and dancing were core to the film, Forever Young was not great music-driven film. At the same time, the tragic deaths of Yan Xi’s friends at the film’s onset definitely seizes the attention of the audience. It is a shame, then, that the film squanders this attention by taking its audience on a circuitous plot with no clear resolution or meaningful character development. While the film tries to lighten its plot with certain comedic elements, I found it difficult to laugh at small jokes when Yan Xi’s depression cast a grey cloud over the entire film.
Forever Young perhaps tried to be a mix of everything,some hybrid of a music-and-arts-driven coming-of-age tragi-romance with a hint of comedy sprinkled in. But rather than becoming a Michelin-starred Asian-fusion meal, Forever Young ended up much more like P.F. Chang’s — that is to say, all the pieces are there, but in the wrong order and magnitude ∎
Forever Young (Chinese: 栀子花开)— China. Directed by He Jiong. First released July 2015. Running time 1hr 47min. Starring Li Yifeng and Zhang Huiwen.