I have to admit, I found "Youth" ("Fang hua") to be pretty hokey. The first half of the movie introduces us to the various young women of a military dance troupe during the Cultural Revolution, including the poor but eager newcomer He Xiaoping, who desperately wants to find the camaraderie that her family couldn't provide for her. Unfortunately, she is bullied and made fun of by the other girls, finding solace mostly from the kind attention of Liu Feng, a male dancer sidelined due to injury, but helping out with whatever tasks are necessary. This half of the film is light and messy, but beautifully shot and engaging, if also clearly meant as a set-up for bigger things to come.
Those things happen in the second half of the movie, when our characters are forced to experience the horrors of war as the storyline veers into melodramatic excess. Lives are shattered, hearts are broken and violins erupt on the soundtrack to underscore the emotional profundity of it all. I'm not one to immediately dismiss a movie due to blatant sentimentality or weepy nostalgia (if I was, I wouldn't be such a huge John Woo fan), and I also quite enjoyed Feng's earlier train-bound thriller "A World Without Thieves," but much of this film's latter half is littered with tiresome war movie cliches that the impressive cast and visuals simply can't transcend. I even had to suppress a chuckle during a scene wherein a deeply withdrawn, mentally scarred character watches from the audience as her former comrades dance on stage, causing her to quietly slip away from her distracted doctor into the empty courtyard, where the doctor soon finds her gracefully dancing her heart out.
The movie's earnest script is by Yan Geling, who authored the novel "The Flowers of War," a book whose transition to the screen under the auspices of director Zhang Yimou also failed to move me in the way it was intended. But that may have been due as much to Christian Bale's lackluster performance as to the unconvincing material.