Film appreciation: Chor Yuen's The Youth (1969) - campy verve, surreal script

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 May, 2015, 11:29pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 May, 2015, 11:29pm

Hong Kong's once flourishing Cantonese-dialect film industry was in dire straits when The Youth (1969) was released. It was hoped this provocative exposé might turn the tide.

The 1960s had begun with an annual output of more than 200 features, but that number would dwindle to zero by the early 1970s.

Although The Youth did little to reverse the trend, it presents today's viewers with a vibrant snapshot of an industry fighting to remain relevant in the face of its base audience's defection to locally made Putonghua-language pictures and imports from Taiwan, Hollywood and Japan.

Although only 34 at the time, director-writer Chor Yuen was already a respected veteran with more than 60 credits when he attempted The Youth.

He was influenced by French New Wave techniques and plot machinations borrowed from Rebel without a Cause. Unlike James Dean and his high school cohorts, The Youth 's protagonists are older students attending an elite university populated with an array of characters who couldn't be less academic.

The movie contains no classrooms or books but instead spotlights the pupils' descent into a lurid world of drugs, prostitution, rape, blackmail, suicide and murder. Adding to the surreal mixture is the script's perfunctory nod to mainstream morality by imbuing the proceedings with undercurrents of Christian redemption and religious symbolism, foreshadowing John Woo's The Killer.

The Youth 's swinging '60s ethos has a campy verve brought to life by an impressive roster of young stars. Kenneth Tsang Kong, named best supporting actor at last month's Hong Kong Film Awards for Overheard 3, is well suited for the role of a conniving but loyal undergraduate who does what he must to survive.

Lydia Shum Tin-ha, who served as executive producer alongside Tsang and the director, plays her patented "fat girl" caricature and provides much of the melodrama's comedy relief. Equally non-PC but more revealing is Tina Ti's gold-digging coed, a most unintellectual lass who parlays her assets to maximum profit and inadvertent tragedy.

Although the portrait they paint is far from a mirror image of Hong Kong's youth, The Youth succeeds as an entertaining reflection of its team's commitment to saving an imperiled form of cinema then facing imminent extinction.

The Youth, Sunday, May 31, 4.30pm, Hong Kong Film Archive, 50 Lei King Road, Sai Wan Ho. Part of The Art of Film Scripting programme