Sacrificed Youth

dir. Zhang Nuanxin

TIFF Cinematheque - Retrospective

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Fourth Generation icon Zhang Nuanxin made her masterpiece with this coming-of-age tale about a teenage city girl who is "sent down" to the mountainous territory of Yunnan province during the Cultural Revolution.


The gender equity programmes put into place on the Mainland after 1949 saw the emergence of some influential female voices in Chinese cinema, the most famous of whom was Zhang Nuanxin. Her masterpiece Sacrificed Youth tells the story of seventeen-year-old Li Chun, who is transported to the mountainous Dai territory in Yunnan during the Cultural Revolution as a "sent-down girl" to live and work amongst the locals. Boarding in a Dai home with a "Dadie" (Father), "Yiya" (an old Grandmother) and "Dage" (Elder Brother), this daughter of urban intellectuals is shocked by the earthy sensuality of the locals. While she eventually comes to realize that beauty is something deeper and more primal than the Maoist maxim repeated to her by her teachers ("Only true modesty is true feminine beauty") and begins to share in the joyous, vibrant and uninhibited life of her indigenous hosts, her rejection of Dage’s lustful attentions precipitates her return to the city. Revisiting the area years later, she receives a shocking and heartbreaking surprise. While her use of landscape is as breathtaking as that of her Fifth Generation successors — especially in the staggering final sequence, a series of long shots of barren plains and forbidding mountains that resembles a fractured Qing scroll painting — Zhang forgoes their symbolism in favour of a more ethnographic (and empathetic) style, and combines this with rarely addressed issues of female self-realization and sexual awakening.