Lou Ye’s complicated relationship with China’s censorship board has been well documented though it is certainly not a recent phenomenon and has in fact plagued him from the very beginning of his career. His first feature, Weekend Lover, was shot in 1993 but not passed for release until two years later technically making 1994’s Don’t Be Young (危情少女, Wēi Qíng Shàonǚ) his cinematic debut. This might seem surprising seeing as Don’t Be Young flirts with themes the censors find problematic, an ethereal gothic ghost story perhaps permissible solely because the spectres can be read as existing only in the mind of the troubled, traumatised young woman at the film’s centre though the spirit that haunts is perhaps that of the age and of a traumatised China caught between failed revolution and rapidly expanding economic prosperity.
As the heroine, Lan (Qing Yu), tells us this is the story of “another time, another place”. Unable to separate fantasy from reality, she nevertheless goes on to narrate a dream she later claims not to remember and in any case can no longer revisit. On smashing a bottle in the street she retrieves a device which seems to be the engine of a music box that once belonged to her mother and acts as a kind of key to an alternate reality that soon bleeds into her contemporary life. In the present, Lan is a nervous young woman struggling to deal with her mother’s death in an apparent suicide, watched over by her patient doctor boyfriend Lu Mang (You Yong) but after discovering a strange book similar to one her mother owned containing a floor plan and a letter after taking shelter from the rain under the porch of an abandoned mansion she finds herself investigating her own history.
The dream world, shot in an ethereal blue, seems to exist sometime in the 1950s, Lan’s clothes and those of her boyfriend and the other people around her suddenly shifting without warning as she finds herself crossing over while everyone else appears in pale face as if this were the world of the dead, or a “hell” as an elderly woman later describes it. Lan insists that “everything is real” though the borders between the two worlds become increasingly thin even as the plot developments become ever more outlandish leading to a confrontation with a mad scientist veterinarian and his nefarious attempts at human experimentation with a weird drug that causes those who take it to lose control over their nervous systems. The scientist insists that science makes him a god with the right to dominate the world while the secondary villainess (Nai An) turns out to be a scorned nurse blackmailed into helping to “ruin” Lan over her murder of a patient who tried to assault her by pulling out his oxygen tubes. Only the earnest Lu Mang who is strangely absent for much of the action after leaving to “take an exam” but mostly wandering moodily around noirish rail stations served by atmospheric steam trains, is present to represent “science” as a force for good but ultimately ends up defending Lan in the most prehistoric of ways.
Nevertheless, what she begins to uncover is a complicated family legacy running through romantic failure, adulterous liaison, and broken connections all contained in the house she inherits after decoding the messages from the dream. Lou throws in a series of unexpected cinematic allusions, including one to Ozu’s Late Spring as a lodger randomly peels an apple with intense melancholy, while drawing inspiration from the Hong Kong New Wave. Yet the key aesthetic is gothic horror as Lan finds herself trapped by generational trauma, witnessing her grandmother bound in cobwebs while attacked by razor-wielding spectres apparently keen to stop her further investigating her traumatic past. Finally she laments that all that remains is an “empty and beautiful end”, apparently returning to the present which is perhaps equally frightening in its sense of oppressive anxiety by abandoning the music box and thereby closing the door on the nightmarish dream world of haunted houses and cursed legacies. Nevertheless, the young couple seem to have beaten back the attempts of the older generation to reassert their control and emerge into a new society with a new sense of freedom if not quite liberation.
Don’t Be Young is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.