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Delayed by five years, Zhang Ziyi movie has become a box office hit


Long gestation period: Zhang Ziyi filmed Forever Young in 2012

Jessica Biel, Jake Gyllenhaal and James Brolin starred and David O Russell directed. Yet in spite of a bankable cast and an experienced director it turned out to be one of the most delayed films in recent Hollywood history. Originally titled Nailed, the film began production in 2008 only to be halted due to financial difficulties. Cue a change of director and a new name – Accidental Love. A full seven years from the first day of filming, the movie (later disowned by Russell) was finally screened in cinemas in 2015. You may not be surprised to hear that this troubled flick was roundly panned by critics: it got a lowly 9% score on film review website Rotten Tomatoes.

When it comes to a badly delayed release, Forever Young’s wasn’t quite that bad: it was shelved for merely five years. However, between the time when the Chinese film wrapped – that is to say, around 2012 – to when it was released two weeks ago, three out of the four lead actors including Huang Xiaoming and Zhang Ziyi had not only married but become parents as well. Even former “Milk Tea Girl” Zhang Zetian (see this week’s “Internet and Tech” section), who got a cameo in the film when she was still a college student, is today the youngest female billionaire in China at the age of 24, after marrying Richard Liu, the founder and chief executive of JD.com.

Forever Young was made to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of Tsinghua University. It follows the tear-jerking story of four graduates from the prestigious university in different eras: the 1920s, 1940s, 1960s and the current time, and sees each story entwining.

So why did the release take so long? According to the producers, they encountered far more complications in post-production than they had anticipated. Even though there were some rumblings around 2014 that the period drama was finally set to premiere, it wasn’t until mid-January this year that Forever Young finally saw the light of day (ironically, 2018 coincided with rival Beijing college Peking University’s 120th anniversary).

Still, industry insiders say the real reason for the delay is that the film incurred the wrath of the censors for its portrayal of sensitive periods in Chinese history. For instance, the film highlights the efforts of the Kuomintang army during the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1937-45) when one of the protagonists sacrifices his life by volunteering for the KMT airforce to fight the Japanese. Even the Global Times has noted that such “direct praise of the KMT is rare” in mainland productions. (The KMT lost the civil war to the Chinese Communist Party in 1949 and fled to Taiwan.)

More sensitive still, the nostalgic drama also portrays the cruelty of the Cultural Revolution, which is traditionally off-limits to Chinese films. One of the characters, played by Zhang Ziyi, is falsely accused of spying before then being beaten to death by an angry mob.

Given such controversy, the film was not an easy sell to cinema bosses. In fact, it was allocated only 18% of available screens on the first day it opened in China.

It also didn’t help that initial reactions to the film were far from positive (though not as dismal as Accidental Love’s word of mouth). On Douban, the TV and film review site, the film had a rating of 6.2 out of 10 in the first week of its release.

A lot of the comments dissing the movie complained that Tsinghua University’s involvement was “too blatant”, with many (presumably not loyal alumni) reaching the verdict “it feels like a promotional video for Tsinghua”. Even the Chinese title Wu Wen Xi Dong, which means “don’t ask whether it is east or west”, was deemed too vague unless the audience had attended Tsinghua because it is taken from the lyrics of the school song (as the school’s most famous living alumni President Xi Jinping would be familiar with it).

There were also criticisms about how the story was filmed, with many saying that there was too much music which made it feel like a “stretched out music video”.

Others found fault with the script. “The script is so long and wordy as if it was lifted from a scholarly essay. On the other hand, the style of the film feels like a fancy music video. The editing is also terrible, making the already complicated story even more chaotic. Some of the scenes are so ridiculous we almost laughed out loud,” one netizen wrote on Douban.

“The film is epically out of control. The only redeeming thing about it is its cinematography. The director is too ambitious, putting together four different stories that take place in different periods in Tsinghua over the last 100 years. But the result is a hot mess,” another wrote.

Technical flaws aside, the film had its supporters in the media. “Forever Young is a tribute to the love and courage young people have. It celebrates their unhindered freedom and their fearless search for self-identity. Young audiences today, however, might think of the screenplay as too wordy and the choices the characters make as too emotional and irrational. But that’s precisely the reality of the past. The film was able to capture the idealism that is what makes youth so precious. It is not perfect, but that’s youth,” Yangcheng Evening News opined.

“What is amazing about the film is that it encompasses romantic love, parental love and patriotic love. Moreover, it was able to convey the spirit and sentiment of the different periods. It is a nostalgic film at its finest,” Tencent Entertainment, gushed.

While the film may have polarised audiences, the nostalgic drama still managed to outperform at the box office.

Forever Love has raked in Rmb400 million in ticket sales. Along with the success of Feng Xiaogang’s latest period drama Youth (see WiC392), critics say the commercial success of both may herald a new era for artistic films in China.

“Recently, both Youth and Forever Young have made people feel really warm inside. Just as Youth talks about the impact of the Sino-Vietnamese War, Forever Young touches on the lives of people that have been long forgotten and neglected in history,” a cinemagoer lauded.

Others celebrated the fact that a film which featured so many controversial historical epochs even made it to the big screen. For some that already constituted a victory.

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