Youth, the highly-anticipated Feng Xiaogang film that touches upon the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and the Sino-Vietnam War, is officially a box-office hit. After premiering on Friday, Youth dominated the Chinese weekend box office with a 316 million yuan (.78 million) take. This marked the first time since mid-October that a Chinese film, rather than a Hollywood blockbuster, took first place at the Chinese mainland box office.
Though Feng is a household name in China, none of his works over the past decade has performed so well across a wide spectrum of audience demographics - ranging from teens all the way to senior citizens.
One important factor behind the film's success, which tells the tale of a PLA song and dance ensemble, is the straightforward way it depicts the Sino-Vietnam War - a subject that has been rarely touched upon in Chinese movies. The film piques audiences' curiosity with its subject matter and then follows up with an emotional story.
While it came as no surprise that Hollywood blockbusters like Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Thor: Ragnarok and Justice League took over Chinese mainland theaters one after other starting in October, the considerable popularity of Youth was beyond many people's expectations.
Considering the time period of the story and the largely unknown cast outside of lead actor Huang Xuan, industry insiders had low expectations when it came to Youth's performance at the box office.
"Many people thought Youth was only for the middle-aged audiences, but the film has clearly been able to transcend age boundaries," Tan Fei, a domestic film critic, told the Global Times.
"Filmmakers usually assign labels to their films before they start filming - 'this is for this group and that is for another group' - but films that touch upon the human condition are universal."
Pointing out that enthusiasm for big-budget special effects laden blockbusters has been cooling in China, Tan added that "too many of these types of blockbusters and audiences will grow tired of them and gradually realize that they are more or less all the same."
Tan pointed to the fact that 3D fantasy action film The Thousand Faces of Dunjia, which debuted on Thursday, came in behind the 2D Youth at the weekend box office as evidence of this trend.
"That is why we are now seeing an increasing amount of films in a variety of genres in the Chinese film market."
Youth holds a 7.9/10 on Chinese film website Mtime, surpassing award-winning 2016 film I Am Not Madam Bovary (7.2/10) and 1997's The Dream Factory (7.8/10) to become Feng's highest-rated film on the site. On Douban, a Chinese review site more frequently visited by art film lovers, Youth also enjoys a 7.9/10 from 73,033 netizens, ranking it among the top 31 percent of feature films on the site.
"I saw Youth by chance, but was moved by the small moments on display," Guo Yi, 32, a filmgoer in Beijing, told the Global Times. A fan of fantasy and action blockbusters, Guo said that he now realizes that while these exciting films tend to fill up theaters, they don't leave audiences with much to think about after they end.
"Youth is something that stays with you afterwards. And the more you think about it, the more interesting you find it," he added.
"Presenting the youth of a generation and the psychosis of a certain time period with a nostalgic flair, Youth portrays a group of people accurately and with a slight human touch," Yin Hong, executive vice-president of School of Journalism and Communication, Tsinghua University, posted on Sina Weibo.
Though Yin pointed out that the film has a few flaws, such as "being wordy at times and oversimplifying some things" and "the war scenes do not live up to Assembly (Feng's 2007 war film)," he still finds that the artistic appeal of the film as a whole makes Youth "an excellent work."
While most critics have praised the film, not everyone agrees.
Calling Youth "Feng's worst film," female writer Huang Wei criticized the film for a lack of distinct leading and supporting roles, a situation made worse due to a fragmented plot.
"From the beginning to the end, my ears were filled with various songs… however this meant the film was overly driven by sentiment."
In his review on WeChat, critic Liu Lu pointed out that most people who liked Youth were not applauding the film itself, so much as the director's choice to tackle the sensitive time period of the Cultural Revolution.
"Youth's success lies in its ability to tackle a time that audiences are curious about… which also shows how clever Feng Xiaogang is," Liu wrote.
"However, no matter how many tears this film may provoke through its emotional depiction of history, it is still just a cookie-cutter film that lacks any thought or the ability to take a critical look at the time."