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Forever Young (2015)
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by Jay Seaver

"A silly gesture can beat serious drama."
3 stars

The plot of "Forever Young" could come straight out of a silly sitcom meant for young adults, although I suspect that this hypothetical Chinese "Saved by the Bell: The College Years" would probably go to far less drastic lengths to set it up. Oddly, though, it's not so much the light comedy spawned by terrible tragedy that messes this film up, but the things meant to fill it out into a more complete story.

It centers around Xu Nuo (Li Yifeng) and Yan Xi (Zhang Huiwen), boyfriend and girlfriend about to graduate college and perform in "dream night" just prior. Xu Nuo is a talented singer in a band with his three roommates, hoping to be noticed by a label, while Yan Xi and her roommates are ballet dancers with a goal of continuing their studies in Paris. Yan Xi doesn't react well to learning this may be beyond her friends' means, and not only does she not get a chance to apologize before a horrible auto accident, but she winds up in the hospital with a broken leg after pushing herself too hard in response. Seeing her heartbroken, Xu Nuo comes up with a crazy idea: What if he and his friends do the girls' number at the show in tribute? After all, these four guys who have never danced ballet before have a whole month to learn "Four Little Swans".

It's a silly, silly idea, but not really a bad one. The slapstick that's going to come out of it is obvious, sure, and works despite the audience knowing what's coming. The sentiment behind it is just as plain, but writer/director He Jiong sets thing up so that the audience can see the bonds between Xu Nuo, Yan Xi, and their groups of friends (though not individually paired off, the whole group hangs out together) so that it doesn't just feel like one person dragging the rest along with his silly plan. The goofy, inappropriate-seeming comedy mostly works.

There are execution problems - once or twice He will back into a gag that demands some effort, but instead just sort of squirms before cutting to another scene - but that part of the movie's all right. It's not enough to stretch to 108 minutes, though, so there are other bits glued on that aren't so successful: Xu Nuo is keeping another secret from Yan Xi, and this bit of "don't tell the poor, fragile girl more bad news" material winds up feeling more condescending than earnestly melodramatic. The band suddenly realizes, hey, we're not practicing music any more, and rather than being the reasonable people like they have been for the rest of the movie, makes a big thing out of it. A rival bandleader wants to steal Xu Nuo away to his group because he figures they've got a better shot of being noticed and signed together than when held back by their less-talented friends. There's drama to this material, sure, but it feels stale, and seldom comes off a more than a stalling action.

It's also not material that gives the young cast a lot to do. The main pair are actually fairly strong together; there's not a lot of chance to show Xu Nuo and Yan Xi as a genuinely happy couple, but Li Yifeng can certainly do "standing nearby, ready to provide support" with the best of them, and that's something that can look ridiculous if not done right. He's kind of bland in some other ways, but at least not wooden. It's a bit unfortunate that the film is so tilted to him as opposed to Zhang Huiwen; she establishes Yan Xi as energetic in terms of being both outgoing and fiercely committed to dance but then has little to do during the second half but show up every once in a while, playing downcast well but not driving the story.

This is He Jiong's first feature as director, and it's bumpy at times - while the melodramatics are generally appropriate, there are some moments when it comes down hard enough to draw snickers as opposed to gasps. Generally, the further He gets from the movie's high-concept, the less things work, even with a cast that's up for what's in the script.

Still, the cynicism that this sort of weepy (with or without a comic spin) can generate is kept mostly at bay. This is a movie that could easily have had be staring in slack-jawed horror, wondering what the people involved were thinking - as many of its ilk do - but instead I mostly remember the good-hearted core. The movie's got problems, but they don't go all the way to the bottom.

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originally posted: 07/13/15 12:50:54
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Directed by
  Jiong He

Written by
  Jiong He

  Yifeng Li
  Huiwen Zhang

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