I have a new goal this year to watch a lot more animated movies, whether in theaters or online streaming. I think we’re definitely seeing a lot of great stories and animation coming out through full length movies. The only problem being that it can be very difficult to find a theater near you to watch them in and then it takes forever for them to come out on a streaming service like Netflix to watch. But I think with the efforts of more companies, we’re getting more screenings around the US for various animated movies. I’m not sure if Flavors of Youth ever made it to US theaters, but it did make it onto Netflix, and instantly became an addition onto my long list of things to watch. And while I don’t think it’s the best animated film I’ve ever seen, it definitely has its strengths and interesting moments to discuss.
Flavors of Youth is a three-part film that tells the stories of three separate groups of characters, all with their own histories and troubles. The stories all take place somewhere in China, from Beijing to some more rural areas. The first story follows a young man who looks back on his life and childhood in his hometown when he was able to get noodles with his grandmother or on his way to school. He narrates his memories from his younger years to the present, reminiscing about food, family, and the ever changing nature of his neighborhood. The second story follows the lives of two sisters, one a model and the other a fashion designer as the grow and adapt to their lives and careers. As one sister sees her career as a model being overshadowed by younger women, she begins to relearn the value the family. The last is a story of three friends and how their paths separate and converge as life moves forward.
The film was a Japanese-Chinese co-production between CoMix Wave Films and Haoliners Animation League, and was released in August of 2018. One of the big strengths of this film is definitely the animation. The animation of the cooking in the first story made me think of the way many Ghibli films pay close attention to the details around food and cooking. The straining of the noodles, pouring the broth, everything about that scene is enough to make your mouth water in anticipation even though you know you can’t actually eat it. It’s making me want to run down and get ramen right now just remembering it. The scene really does a good job of making you feel jealous of a 2D character.
But besides all the detail put into the food, Flavors of Youth has some pretty amazing backgrounds, really using all the animation they have available to showcase some of the best skylines of China. I loved seeing both the cityscapes and the more rural areas. Each had their own kind of charm that helped provide a great backdrop to the kind of stories this film is trying to tell. I especially loved the more rural or poorer neighborhoods. The tall apartment buildings with all the laundry hanging outside and the buildings that really look lived-in give support to the nostalgic feel of a lot of these stories, taking us back to the early years of these characters as they grow up and then watch them move away to the big cities.
However, I think the animation may be the film’s greatest strength. When we get into the writing and storytelling of the film, there’s a bit to be desired. While I enjoyed the overall feel and nostalgic tone of it, the stories themselves didn’t have much depth, especially to the characters themselves. Maybe it was the limited time span allotted to each story that made it hard to really examine each character and watch them grow, but then again I’ve definitely seen short films to a great job at this before. I really liked the messages each story had about family, life, and how the world keeps moving forward, but it might have had more impact with a better set of characters or more effort put into their growth.
Each story has their own message to impart about nostalgia and family. The first story is about a boy remembering all the good memories he has surrounding eating a bowl of noodles. From eating noodles each morning with his grandmother as a child to sitting at a particular noodle stand on his way home from school just to catch a glimpse of the girl he has a crush on. The taste and smell of noodles becomes nostalgic to him and the act of eating them becomes intertwined with good memories and positive feelings. But life, as it does, moves forward. The noodle shop he went to as a child closes and moves. The noodle stand he went to as a teenager closes and becomes a different store. Then his grandmother passes away. Life moves on and sometimes all that’s left are memories.
I think this first story is my favorite out of all three though it really doesn’t have much to say, but I think it has just enough depth to be interesting. I like how the theme of food and the memories we make around eating can become nostalgic later in life. I mean who doesn’t have a restaurant or a particular food they have good memories of eating as a kid. Food is the thematic element that brings the whole episode together, and I honestly wish they had stuck with this theme throughout the rest of the other two parts. But this part also has another element to the story. It also provides little looks inside the lives of other families, making the narrator almost like an observer as he goes through life. It was really interesting to see the intermingling of his life with those of the other families around him.
The second part might be the weakest of the stories, but it still has some interesting messages about the conflicts that can arise when you try to balance work and family. The story is about two sisters, one a model and the other a fashion design student. The two sisters used to be close, exchanging clothes and talking about fashion, but as the older sister’s modeling career takes off, her little sister seems to hold less and less of a place in her mind. The whole story comes to a head when she begins to feel threatened by a younger model, and considers quitting modeling altogether. It’s her sister that puts together new clothes and a fashion show to bring her back to her old self.
I think this part a lot to say about the value of family, and how your career may not always be there for you but family will. As the pressure of her career begins to weigh on her, she slowly loses herself to work and stress, eventually collapsing on the runway. She begins to spend less time with her sister, even missing a birthday dinner set up for her in favor of work. It’s only when she’s on the brink of losing her career that she is reminded of how much her sister has always been there for her and will continue to be there for her. It’s a nice message, but I wasn’t as pulled into this story as I could have been. The story definitely needed a little more depth to make it truly engaging.
The last story was a little bit better. Focusing on three friends who are having a hard time staying in touch as they grow and figure out their careers, the story has some great themes about the value of friendships, love, and following your passions. Again I wouldn’t say it was the best story, but I did really enjoy the little love story that took place in this part. I found it really cute that the two teenagers were communicating by tapes, passing the tape back and forth to record questions and answers to each other like little love notes you pass around in class. Eventually this becomes a major part of the story as he finds a tape with a previously unheard of message years in the future that rekindles his love for this girl. It’s a sweet story and I found the characters pretty fun to watch.
What I thought could have been done better was not just glossing over the domestic abuse this girl faces at the hands of her father. She was literally beaten by her father to the point of being sent to the hospital because she didn’t pass an exam. Then we see her happily waving from a bridge as the boy moves away, the bandages and bruises still on her face. I really was not happy with that being included and I really don’t know why it was, other than as an underlying reason for her to feel forced into going to a school she doesn’t want to go to.
Overall I enjoyed Flavors of Youth, though I think it could of had a little more depth and character development. The art and animation are fantastic though and I did enjoy most of the messages and themes of each of the three stories. I don’t think I’ll be watching it again though, but I will remember the highly detailed cooking scenes. I’m still craving ramen even now.
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