Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Li Bingbing in "Seventeen Years"

“Seventeen Years” functions on several levels, failing on all of them. It raises questions about the rapid modernization of China in 2000 but attempts no answers. Tao Lan is part of an uneasily blended family and feels unloved, unattractive and ignored by her mother and stepfather in favor of her pretty and outgoing stepsister Yu Xiaoqin. Tao Lan is deeply unhappy and desperate for love while Yu Xiaoqin is the almost archetypal mean stepsister, taunting her and getting her in trouble with the adults. In a fit of rage Tao Lan smashes her with a brick and killing her. This is followed by scenes of arrest, trial and sentencing to the accompaniment of wailing from her remaining family.

The uncinematic and inartistic scene setting is only notable because it leads to an inter-title card with “Seventeen Years Later” printed on it. This is lazy filmmaking raised to an art. However it does the job and we are now watching Tao Lin as an exemplary prisoner shown the error of her ways and the path to rehabilitation (and maybe even a job at Foxconn) by a benevolent warden. One of her key aides is Captain Chen Ji, Li Bingbing for whom the costume department has found a prison officer’s uniform several sizes too large.

(Just in case you missed it.)

This is no Women in Prison movie: when inmates file into the communal bathroom they simply wash their hands and faces instead of more typical WIP fare, stripping off and soaping each other down. “Seventeen Years” is propaganda for the benevolent prison system of the PRC in the same way that socialist realism was about the happy tractor plant workers in the Soviet Unions in the 1930s. One might call this state capitalist realism but it is no less ideological nor any more artistic than the “girl meets tractor” classics from the USSR from 80 years ago.

The two parts of the movie—the re-education and redemption of one of China’s erring daughters jammed into a lachrymose family melodrama—don’t fit together. It is as if a World War II armed forces anti-VD documentary was inserted into a weeper based on a Nicholas Sparks novel. Zhang Yuan directed and edited. Since he did the astonishing “Green Tea” a couple of years after “Seventeen Years” the structural clumsiness wasn’t due to any lack of talent.

The lack of psychological insight shown by the main characters is so striking that it must, on some level, be done purposefully. When, for example, the miserable Tao Lan, accompanied now by Chen Ji finds that her former home has been demolished and her mother has moved she wants to give up and go back to prison. The stern Captain Chen tells her that “this isn't about choice--you were rewarded by the state. Do you know what that means? Have we wasted all these years of re-education?”. Not that surprising since the inmates released for short holiday furloughs have to show they have memorized the prison rule book and are able to recite it before they are allowed to leave.

There are some decently done scenes, particularly of crowds at the train station as the huge holiday migration of Chinese workers (in this case prisoners) starts up, with touching scenes of reunion taking place in the foreground and background while Tao Lan wanders helplessly without anyone to pick her up.

Recommended only for those who want to see Li Bingbing as a party apparatchik with a heart of gold and a uniform that doesn’t fit.


  1. Hmmm, I guess I liked this more than you did - despite the lack of any stripping/soaping scenes. Maybe it's because it was my first LBB film. As I wrote in now long dead forums while serving as self-appointed hype man for unknown mainland films: there's something about a girl in uniform (and more so when it's Li Bingbing). Li Bingbing caught my notice in this one and I made a mental note to follow her future works after seeing this.

    It's been more than a few years since I've watched Seventeen Years. The first time, when any subbed mainland film (even on murky vcd!) was video fodder for purchase and viewing. Later, while making fuzzy screen caps for HKMDB, I still found it riveting to watch. Admittedly, I tend to favor lachrymose melodramas. I guess I like my stories simple and sappy. I enjoyed Green Tea well enough but thought it was too focused on the glossy visuals at the expense of a more coherent storyline.

    And for some reason, I've always linked Seventeen Years in my mind to The Last Detail, though it's in reverse I suppose.

    Now, if I thought I had a chance of finding it, I'd root around and look for my vcd to re-watch Seventeen Years, :D

  2. Dennis--

    I agree with just about everything in your comment, particularly about "Green Tea" which, while visually an exceptional achievement was so slick and devoted to the shiny surface of things that it just slipped away.

    Very intriguing comparison with "The Last Detail"--while the American movie was a reverse image of the journey from freedom to incarceration points up the equivalence of many parts of the prison systems of the USA and the PRC. Buddusky wants to show the sad sack Meadows a good time while knowing that he is essentially delivering Meadows to Hell; Portsmouth Naval Prison was known throughout the service for the unchecked brutality of its guards.

    Tao Lan is guilty of the murder of her sister, an act witnessed by the audience. She is as guilty as guilty can be and clearly deserves to be punished. However a major theme of the movie which I missed entirely the first time through is the commitment of the PRC to rehabilitating prisoners. The way it is done seems crude and formulaic--memorize the rule book so that you can recite upon command from an officer--but it teaches structure, discipline and respect for the law (or at least for the power of those in uniform).

    "Seventeen Years" raises a lot of questions and it is to his eternal credit that Zhang Yuan asked them although having to do so in an oblique way.

    I apologize for letting your comment get lost in Blogger limbo--not sure how it happened.