Text by Zi Mo
Last May, So Young, the directorial debut of famous Chinese actress Zhao Wei, exceeded all expectations by earning box office revenue topping 700 million yuan. Another Chinese movie, American Dreams in China, which many referred to as the male version of So Young due to its similar historical setting, took in more than 500 million yuan. Neither were big-budget visual feasts sated with special effects and A-list stars. Nevertheless, in China, they even eclipsed Hollywood blockbusters Iron Man 3 and The Croods, which hit theaters during the same period.
Starting with the Taiwanese romance You Are the Apple of My Eye, set in a 1990s high school, nostalgia for youth seems to have become a favorite subject for Chinese filmmakers. On the heels of So Young and American Dreams in China, another campus romance, Tiny Times, already sparked considerable buzz even before its premiere in late June.
Each of these films has achieved success both critically and commercially because they cater to the emotional needs and tastes of today’s mainstream. For many adults, experiences from their youth remain their most cherished memories. Despite growing pains, youth is always flavored with excitement and dreams. Particularly, naive years spent in school are often the most unforgettable of a lifetime – whether characterized by love overcoming contrasting family status and wealth or ambitiousplans between friends to start a business together despite tremendous hurdles lying ahead.
After graduating from college, many youngsters give up their naive dreams and adapt to harsh realities. Film is an ideal medium to inspire nostalgia for youth, which can result in powerful emotions. In recent years, facing great pressure in life and work, lamenting wasted youth has become common practice for those born between the 70s and 90s. In this environment, the success of films depicting campus romance in a bygone era should come as no surprise.
So Young and American Dreams in China are both set in college campuses in the 80s and 90s. Scenes in the films – senior male students vying for the attention of freshman girls, student organizations recruiting members, students using a hotplate in their dormitory despite the prohibition of such appliances – prompt spectators to recall their own childish antics during college. Regardless of overall production quality of the film, many are happy to spend a few dollars to watch it with friends or family, seeking mental relief through retrospection on their innocent years.