Reviewby Kim Morrissy,
Flavors of Youth
"Clothing, food, housing, and transport" - this theme ties the three stories in this anthology film together. "A Breakfast of Sunflowers" tells the story about a youth working in Beijing, who misses the food he used to eat in his hometown. "A Little Fashion Show" is about sisters living in Guangzhou, struggling to connect after the elder sister pushes herself too hard in her modeling career. "Shanghai Love" is an homage to 5 Centimeters Per Second set in 1990s Shanghai. Two childhood friends parted ways years ago, and now they remember their past together through the old cassette tapes they left behind.
5 Centimeters Per Second made a very deep impression on Li Haoling. Even before your name. became a colossal hit worldwide, Makoto Shinkai's films have always been popular among Chinese anime fans. Li in particular was so touched by Shinkai's stories of wistful young love that, soon after starting up his own animation company in 2013, he approached a producer at CoMix Wave Films with the idea of making “5 Centimeters Per Second, but in China”.
On the surface, Flavors of Youth, the film collaboration between Haoliners and CoMix Wave Films, is exactly how Li described it.
Like 5 Centimeters Per Second, Flavors of Youth is a collection of three short films with an overarching theme of growing up and leaving things behind. Narrative-wise, the biggest difference is that each twenty-minute film focuses on different characters and locations, and not all of the stories are preoccupied with romantic love. Otherwise, the look and feel of the film is obviously inspired by Shinkai's work, with some scenes and shots even paying direct homage to previous films.
It may thus be tempting to dismiss Flavors of Youth as a copycat, but the China element does add another dimension to the premise without making its love story any less universal. For those who haven't seen 5 Centimeters (or need a refresher), the story is about the changes to a young couple's relationship over time as they slowly drift apart. Flavors of Youth retains that narrative about not being able to reconnect with someone like you once did, but it's just as much a story about place as it is about time. All of its protagonists are displaced from their hometown, and even when they return, it's not quite like how they remember it.
A major theme of the stories is expressed in the Chinese idiom 衣食住行 (yī shí zhù xíng, lit. “clothing, food, housing, and transport”). It signifies the basic necessities of life, and much of the film is dedicated to showing how these mundane things have tremendous emotional significance for the characters. The first story, directed by Jiaoshou Yi Xiaoxing, is most apparent about this theme; it depicts a young man who's wistful about how he cannot recreate the taste of the rice vermicelli he used to eat as a child. For him, that dish brings up memories of people now beyond his reach: his elderly grandmother, his kindly neighbors who moved away, and an old crush who he never confessed to. It's a nice vignette, even if the plot itself is thin.
The second story is arguably the weakest in the anthology. It's a sweet yet banal story about sisters learning to reconnect. Most of the narrative is preoccupied with the protagonist's petty rivalry with a fellow fashion model, and the tone is more saccharine than nostalgic. Perhaps it's to be expected that the characters’ connection to China is weakest in this story; this was the only vignette handled by a Japanese director - Yoshitaka Takeuchi, a 3D animator at CoMix Wave Films.
The third story, which was directed by Li Haoling himself, channels Shinkai's style the most. A young man moves back to Shanghai after spending years away. He quickly finds himself remembering his childhood sweetheart, but his only way of reconnecting with her now is through playing back the old cassette tapes she left behind. Visually, this story is most reminiscent of Shikai's work too; there's even a scene at a bridge where the young couple part ways. By trying to replicate the quirks of such a distinctive director, Li's piece sets itself up to fall short, but I enjoyed it a lot anyway. The childhood friends are cute together, and overall the story felt more hopeful than its inspiration.
However, Flavors of Youth may fail to impress overall, because its imagery fails to live up to the standards CoMix Wave has set for themselves, particularly with your name. This is largely due to your name.'s stellar character animation, which outclasses even Shinkai's prior works with CoMix Wave Films. Shinkai's characters tend to lack memorability or onscreen presence without intricate and nuanced character animation, and the same can be said for Flavors of Youth.
Even the background art and overall aesthetic are a step down from other CoMix Wave Films movies, in the absence of Shinkai's micromanagement style. Shinkai's strengths always lay in his cohesive approach to compositing and editing, making every background art piece looks like his own drawing. By contrast, each of the three vignettes in Flavors of Youth was handled by separate teams, leading to inconsistencies in the overall artistic vision. The background art looks beautiful in isolation, but the color palette in Flavors of Youth is also somewhat duller than what I'm used to seeing in a Shinkai film.
I don't think anyone was really expecting another your name. to come out of Flavors of Youth, but it's best to keep your expectations in check before watching it. Flavors of Youth works best when it adds new ideas to 5 Centimeters Per Second instead of just trying to ape its tone and feel. Whether you're a fan of his work or not, Shinkai is a difficult artist to emulate, and there are some areas where imitation just won't be comparable.
At least this film did remind me of what I liked about 5 Centimeters Per Second —the relentless passage of time. This film may be aimed primarily at Chinese and Japanese audiences, but I wonder how Chinese communities living overseas will respond to its themes. It did speak to me as someone who lives away from home, but I think there's extra significance for people who have memories of what an older Beijing and Shanghai were like, either through their own experience or a relative's. Flavors of Youth may be far from a masterpiece, but I'm glad that it brought the talented artists at CoMix Wave Films together to portray this sentimental image of China's beautiful cities.
Overall : B
Story : B
Animation : B-
Art : B
Music : B
+ Polished background art, portrays the changing face of China well
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