Seventeen Years, 1999
(Guo Nian Hui Jia)
dir: Zhang Yuan
It is always easy to want to read a movie and this is even more tempting if the movie is from a country that imposes stringent censorship laws and thus a lot of “messages” cannot be explicitly shown on the screen. Zhang Yuan is widely considered as the fore-runner of the new Chinese Underground movie-makers with his first docu-movie MAMA in 1992 and followed that up with the provocative BEIJING BASTARDS the next year. Together with Jia Zhangke, Lou Ye and Wang Xiaoshuai, they are now widely regarded as the pillars of China’s 6th Generation filmmakers.
However, watching SEVENTEEN YEARS is a different experience compared to watching BEIJING BASTARDS. In fact, EAST PALACE WEST PALACE is already different as the movie feels more formal and better produced, marking an end to extreme low budget production.
His latest movie, LITTLE RED FLOWERS, is similarly well produced and actually had its theatrical run in Kuala Lumpur but I doubt many have actually gone to watch it, due a lot to the lack of publicity as well as support from the media and movie reviewers. It is easy to read a lot of things from this very simple movie as well but I will leave my commentary of this movie for another post focusing on just that movie.
SEVENTEEN YEARS is about a person who has lost 17 years of her prime age in prison, from being a teenager and then released from jail in her thirties. These precious years are lost just for the sake of 5 Yuan. It happens in a family where the parents are both from a divorced family and brings to their new marriage a daughter from the previous marriage. We are then shown that both parents love their own daughter more than the other and to add to the tension, both sisters are not really in good terms with each other.
The daddy’s girl (Yu Xiaoqin played by Li Yun) studies hard and looks very decent while the mummy’s girl (Tao Lin played by Liu Lin) is brash and tomboyish and wishes to work in a factory. However, an unfortunate incident involving 5 yuan (about RM2.50) puts Tao Lin in jail for apparently killing Yu Xiaoqin and after 17 years, she is allowed to return to her family for a short holiday to celebrate Chinese New Year. The film reaches this point fairly quickly but the best part of the film is what follows.
A young and good hearted prison captain brings Tao Lin home as after so many years in jail, she has no idea how things worked. Her parents have been informed but they didn’t turn up to pick her from the station. So the captain took pains to locate the parents as all the old Hutongs have been demolished to give way to modern development.
The new dwelling was finally found but the young captain was made to witness a family drama so intense, it shocked her. Can the step father forgive her? Can she forgive herself? Did she steal the 5 yuan? What actually happened?
We the audience are treated to something rare in cinema, the portrayal of human emotion so intense, the players don’t have to act so as to act. The acting is so believable, so un-bombastic (give this to any Hollywood actors/actresses and I guarantee they will blow it by making the characters look so emotionally bombastic!), it strikes a chord in our heart and we feel the characters.
For me, this is one of the best movies that has come out of China, such a little film but so emotionally powerful. Well executed, well directed, well scripted. Neat! For me, this is cinema as perfect as can be.