I cried three times in the process of editing this review. This sweepingly beautiful but simple ode to Tsinghua University is a tear-jerker for all seasons.
Set against one of the most stunning visuals of the year, Forever Young 无问西东 tells its simple tales with an incredibly romantic lens that makes it difficult not to admire. Director Li Fangfang (Heaven Eternal, Love Everlasting) always manages to play my emotions just right to evoke all my emotions for the world she captures.
The film from centers around four loosely connected stories of six characters (played by Wang Leehom, Zhang Ziyi, Chang Chen, Huang Xiaoming, Tie Zheng, and Chen Chusheng) facing their true selves through making difficult choices, from scary ones like life-and-death decisions to the even scarier decision of picking a college major.
First up chronologically is Tsinghua student Wu Yuelan (Chen Chusheng), who clearly has one of the toughest decisions in life – what major to chose. He excels in literature, but feels like he needs to prove himself by sticking to a “hard” STEM major. He runs past the violinists playing in the snow as he seeks his own tune in life. The story, set entirely in the snow-covered halls of Tsinghua, is super short but connects well to the next story.
There, we meet one of Wu’s students, Tsinghua student Shen Guangyao (Wang Leehom), the beacon of perfection who escaped with the school after the fall of Beijing in 1937. Set in the rice paddies of Yunnan, the tale shifts from a rich green to barren redness as air raids begin to become more and more common. Students hide in ditches as they try to learn while bombs are going off around them, while professors scramble to protect artifacts while they’re running for their own lives. The film’s oil painting-like depictions of hope and determination in the face of tragedy are etched in my brain to this day.
The rain drops drown out the sounds of teaching, so the teacher returns to the board and gives the instruction of the day: “Sit and listen to the sound of the rain.” Unsettled by the noise, Shen Guangyao opens the window and see the lush, vibrant world outside. He feels tempted to leave behind his books to fight the air raids in the new American-led air force, but is dissuaded by his stately mother’s hopes for him to live a full and fulfilling life. “I’m afraid that before you can chose what type of life you want to live, your will no longer have a life to chose.”
This segment is beautifully shot, with amazing set design, cinematography, costumes, and a perfect cast. The use of music along with the choreography of the students and locals toiling in the sun makes the film feel like a musical at time. The then 36-year-old Wang Leehom doesn’t look a day older than 20 and is perfectly cast as this ray of sunshine. Michelle Yip also gives a brief but stellar role as Shen’s loving mother. This segment made me cry at seven different points despite being only a quarter of a movie.
Fastforward to the Cultural Revolution, where we meet three high school best friends who are making difficult decisions of their own. Tsinghua student Chen Peng (Huang Xiaoming) has the opportunity to work on the nuclear project, but wants to stay for love. Pharmacist Wang Minjia (Zhang Ziyi) chose between a white lie that could ruin her life, and one that could save that of another. Doctor Li Xiang (Tie Zheng) must chose whether to tell the truth and risk his career. Zhang Ziyi is the clear star of this tale, with the light bouncing off her smile at times, and other times the sorrow of her eyes. With excellent performances from Zhang Ziyi, Tie Zheng, and Zheng Zheng as their teacher’s abusive wife, the segment was a visually lovely and well-told story.
Finally, back in modern day, advertising exec Zhang Guoguo (Chang Chen), Tsinghua grad and the son of two people saved by Li Xiang, is faced with the dilemma of whether to seek revenge on a colleague. The story is really bland, his acting is bland, even all the side characters in it are bland.
Setting aside the blue tint that seeped through the entirety of her last film, director Li Fangfang works with cinematographer Cao Yu to use colors to reflect the mood in her new film. From the white hospital sheets that changed to the yellow of the apricot leaves and the brown of the huts, to the red of the Earth, and even the cold metal of modern skyscrapers, the film uses color and lighting to advance the story. Her editing and scriptwriting, although still her weak points, has improved significantly, with much smoother transitions and natural dialogues. While most of the score is not memorable, one particular song is used cleverly to connect two stories and bring out a major tear-jerking moment.
The film’s tales range from moving to boring, and is connected through a rather loose theme of one generation building on another, but what really stood out to me was how the filmmaker builds this almost dreamlike world with such romantic and enlightened details throughout. Sometimes a simple story told well can still move the audience, and this one definitely left me with a bit more appreciation for the world and lot of used tissues.