The fourth film of firefighter-turned-director Yang Shupeng, Blood of Youth follows a young hacker named Su Ang (Oho Ou), who anonymously tips off the police about the remains of a woman buried in the woods near the city of Hangzhou. Detective Zhang (Zhang Yi) discovers the victim was beaten to death almost two decades ago, and starts investigating the events that lead to her death. But at the same time Su Ang also warns the police about a bank robbery about to happen, but just as the robbers led by Shen (Zhou Ziwei) are about to enter the bank, he tips them off too about the presence of the police. His agenda is a mystery, but it may be linked to the fact that a brain injury he sustained during his years in an orphanage is slowly killing him according to his doctor, Han Yu (Yu Nan), especially as he’s not taking the medicine that might save him. And his endgame definitely includes Lin Qiao (Guo Shutong), a young cellist whose libidinous orchestra conductor Li (Guo Xiaodong) is none other than Han Yu’s husband.
It’s a pity Blood of Youth went by unnoticed in its mid-December release in China, because it is a taut, poignant and cleverly-written drama that sees Yang Shupeng join directors like Ding Sheng, Fei Xing or Cao Baoping as one of the country’s most intriguing, refreshing and accessible auteurs. For almost an hour, subplots are piled up to tantalizing rather than numbing effect: even with only creeping suspicions as to what Su Ang’s endgame is, it’s impossible to drift off, because each seemingly unrelated subplot is brought to life with engagingly somber cinematography by Johnnie To regular Cheng Siu Keung, sharp dialogue, flashes of dark humour, a classy score, and a superb ensemble cast.
While Oho Ou is a bit bland as the hacker who – seemingly – sets the events in motion, he’s surrounded with excellence. Zhang Yi is as deft as ever at playing deeply human apparent losers, and his clumsy, faux-macho attempt at flirting with Yu Nan’s character is a welcome moment of understated levity. Yu has a role that remains collateral, even after the final revelations, but her compelling, subtle performance is a key part of the film’s poignancy. And Guo Xiaodong is simply superb, keeping his despicable character realistic, imbuing him with paradoxical frailty. Zhou Yiwei lends good support as a wily bank robber, and Guo Shutong is key to the story but her character is the least fleshed-out, for a reason that becomes apparent late in the film, in a striking though not quite honestly brought-about twist.Then as the various strands come together into a poignant and elaborate story of revenge, there’s no mind-blowing reckoning, no jubilant comeuppance, but rather a quiet sense of despair. Flashes of action (expertly orchestrated by Bruce Law) relate Blood of Youth to the thriller genre, but at its core, it’s a heartfelt neo-noir.
Long Story Short: Taut, clever and poignant, despite a few plot holes, Blood of Youth is a fine neo-noir carried by an excellent ensemble cast. ****