Young Love Lost,an Offbeat Period Light Comedy
The still of Young Love Lost.
Shandong-born Xiang Guoqiang, a director in his early 30s with a couple of shorts behind him, makes an impressively offbeat feature debut with YOUNG LOVE LOST, a period light comedy set in a grim state-run industrial complex in the early '90s. Based on the 2014 novel by Lu Nei (aka Shang Junwei), it's basically a first-love story between a 20-year-old slacker who gets a job at the local chemical plant and the very focused factory doctor who's diverted by his boyish charm but doesn't look upon him as serious boyfriend material. What gives the film its special flavour is the large cast of colourful characters - mostly undisciplined workers and useless management - and Xiang's quirky approach to the material, which stirs in moments of surreal humour and plenty of larking around into a drab, industrial setting somewhere in northern China.
The giant chemical plant acts as a microcosm for regional China of the time, full of crumbling state-run enterprises staffed by iron-rice-bowl workers and superiors who are either well-connected or making the most of their privileged positions. When Lu Xiaolu is found a job there by his dad, he's late on his first day at work and assigned to a mechanics team as an apprentice under a crafty veteran. But as soon as he discovers that the factory doctor is the same girl who entranced him in the street one day on her bike, his main purpose in life becomes working his way into her affections while doing the least he can at work.
Twenty-one-year-old actor Dong Zijian, who was so good as the lead in Liu Jie's high-school movie YOUNG STYLE (2013) and was so misused in the futuristic episode of Jia Zhangke's MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART (2015), is excellent here as the young roustabout who has no clear goals except chasing girls and maybe (just maybe) trying to get into the city's Chemical Engineering Institute. He has fine chemistry with actress Vivien Li (in her first leading film role) as the super-cool factory doctor Bai Lan, who's on another level from the rest of the townspeople and has her sights on a career beyond the polluted, industrial dustbowl in which she's marking time.
Though it's always entertaining in its character detail - and well played by a seasoned cast - the script by Chen Jianzhong is finally too episodic for its own good and lacks a properly moving finale, with at least a couple of episodes that could be cut to the film's benefit. Most of Xiang's career so far has been in colour correction and visual effects (on which he lectures at Beijing Film Academy) but, apart from an opening sequence which sets the film's offbeat comic tone, he commendably doesn't rely on the latter to drive the film. Instead, he subtly adjusts the colour pallette of the movie to create a toxic-looking, rundown factory in which the characters live their lives, with a cleaner look for sequences between Xiaolu and Bai Lan set outside its gates.