ROTTERDAM 2000 REVIEW: "Seventeen Years" Takes Engrossing, Uneven Trip
by G. Allen Johnson
(indieWIRE/2.8.2000) -- Zhang Yuan has emerged as one of China's more fearless directors, "East
Palace, West Palace" was the first mainstream film from the Mainland to
depict homosexuality, and previous work like "Mother," "Beijing
Bastards," and "Sons" have been noted for their depiction of
"Seventeen Years," Zhang's latest, has a great dramatic concept,
outstanding performances and is the first movie to be filmed, in part,
inside the walls of a Chinese prison. But like the journey that takes up
more than half of the film, the result is all over the map.
Tao Lan (Liu Lin) lives in the family from Hell. Her stepfather (Liang
Song) lavishes his praise and attention on his own daughter, Xiaoqin (Li
Juan); her mother (Li Yeping) and stepfather constantly argue, and Lan
finds herself competing with Xiaoqin, who is snooty and obviously
smarter than her. Lan is sort of the trailer trash of the family; while
Xiaoqin hopes to win a scholarship and go to college, Lan hopes to
escape the family home by working at a factory after high school
When Xiaoqin steals a five-yuan note from her stepfather, she pins the
theft on Lan. Tired of the ever-waging psychological war, Lan bops her
stepsister over the head with a piece of wood as they walk to school.
Trouble is, stepsister dies from the wound.
Seventeen years later, Lan is finishing out her sentence at the women's
prison -- once full of spunk and rebellion, she's a sad, stooping woman
exiting her youth -- when she is chosen for her good behavior to spend
Chinese New Year's at home with her parents. She last saw Mom two and a
half years ago; she has not seen her stepfather since her sentencing.
Problem: her parents have moved, and a guard at the women's prison --
Chen (Li Bingbing), a 28-year-old woman who also has been granted a
leave for the holidays -- assumes the responsibility of helping Lan make
At its best, "Seventeen Years" is engrossing, and Westerners will
especially get a revealing
glimpse into a dark side of modern China. The journey, and the bond that
forms between Lan and her guard, is the best, freshest part of the
movie. Yet that's precisely the section of the film that seems out of
The family drama -- my God, a girl murders her stepsister and shreds
apart her family life ? should be the most compelling. Yet when the
movie is making its most important points, the script (by Yu Hua, Ning
Dai and Zhu Wen) is at its most obvious. A lack of subtlety served Zhang
well in "East Palace, West Palace" -- an essentially two-person play
that lends itself to an in-your-face approach. But in "Seventeen Years,"
we need to see the potential of this family as well as where it all went
wrong. The family arguments at the beginning as well as the reunion at
the end would then carry more weight. When the mother and father are at
their dying daughter's bedside, it feels stagy, movie-like, and without
What keeps the film afloat is the outstanding performance by Liu, who is
equally convincing as a spunky 16-year-old and as a burned out
33-year-old. Like the great Chinese actors, she conveys much more
information through simple glances and physical movements than when
speaking dialogue. As the guard, Li is excellent at suggesting the
vulnerable young woman underneath her captain's uniform.
No question, the buddy/road movie within a tense family drama doesn't
quite gel, but that is where Zhang's film is at its most intriguing.
[G. Allen Johnson is the film critic for San Francisco Examiner. He has
also written for the
Bloomington Herald Times, Pasadena Star-News, Los Angeles Daily News and