Flavors of Youth
If you're still doubting China's will and determination to enter the international film market, here's even more proof. Haoling Li's Flavors of Youth [Si Shi Qing Chun] is a Chinese-Japanese collaboration that aims to conquer anime fans by borrowing Shinkai's trademark style and giving it a more Chinese spin. The result is actually a lot better than it sounds, Flavors of Youth is a worthy anothology project that stands well on its own, even though it has its origin story working against it.
The link with Makoto Shinkai is definitely there, no doubt about it. The story goes that Haoling Li was so taken with Shinkai's 5 Centimeters per Second that she boldly approached CoMix Wave Films and asked them if he could make an anthology film of his own. At first his idea was rejected, but after the massive success of Your Name Li's project was greenlighted after all. So yeah, Shinkai definitely served as inspiration and as an economic booster to get Li's project off the ground, but the film itself it actually quite different from Shinkai's work. Take this to heart, because it is important to set your expectations straight when entering the film.
For all the Shinkai talk, Flavors of Youth reminded me more of About Love, a Pan-Asian live action anthology that also served three delicate stories with melancholic views of youth, tradition and appreciation for the smaller things in life. While About Love is a bit more focused on romance, Flavors of Youth is more centered around characters growing up. The three stories are all independent from each other, with only one post-credit scene loosely linking them together.
Flavors of Youth is currently finding a wider audience through Netflix, which carries the "International Version" of the film. Sadly I have no idea how it differs from a supposedly original version (of which there is no mention anywhere). There don't seem to be any cuts and there don't seem to be any alternative orders for the shorts, the only thing I can think off is that the Internation Version misses a Chinese (Mandarin or Cantonese) dub, which is a little odd for three stories set in China. The Japanese dub is fine and fits the animation style, but I think I would've preferred to hear the characters speak Mandarin, not in the least because the setting has such a crucial role in grounding the atmosphere. Other dubbing options (English, French etc) are available too, but are pretty pointless.
The first story revolves around a local noodle dish. This may sound like a strange topic for a film, but food often plays a big role in Asian cinema. People who are familiar with these kind of films know its best not to watch them on an empty stomach, because things can get pretty tasty. The dish is directly linked to a boy's most important childhood memories, stressing the link between food, personal relations and happiness. It's a sweet and short film that amps up the melancholy without being too direct about it.
The second story is a tale of two sisters. One tall, slender and a famous fashion model, the other timid, introverted and hidden from the world. While they live together and enjoy each other's company, their worlds are so far apart that they hardly spend any quality time together. While the setup is a little obvious and many have called this the shallowest of the three, I feel that it's the fashion setting that proves the biggest hurdle for most reviewers. I found the story to be quite relevant and poignant and overall well executed.
The final short is probably the most conventional of the three. It tells of a childhood romance that never truly blossomed. Li adds a couple of creative touches (like the cassette swapping) and gives Beijing a central role in the story, but the bottom line is very familiar territory. It's the most accessible of the three films, as there is a big dramatic/romantic driver that's largely missing from the other shorts, but that makes it also the least special of the three.
Rating the shorts seperately is of little use, seeing how consistent they are. The artstyle is largely the same (only the character designs are somewhat different), the atmosphere is very much alike and the overarching themes are clearly shared between the three films. While anthologies are usually a good excuse for experimention and variation, Flavors of Youth takes a different approach and tells three separate stories that make up one bigger, consistent whole.
You can't expect Li, Takeuchi and Yi to simply match the quality of Shinkai's films, even when they're getting help from the same studio. Just forget about Shinkai and judge Flavor of Youth on its own merits and strengths. You'll find a film that's rich in atmosphere, beautifully animated and with just the right amount of depth, a film that soothes and comforts but is more than simple sentimental fluff. It's a very nice film that keeps up the good name of anime anthologies, but with a little Chinese twist that does give it a character of its own.