A simple family drama that evolves into a moving study of immutable family ties, “Seventeen Years” bounces helmer Zhang Yuan to the top ranks of Chinese directors after a decade of mixed fortunes. Beautifully played by a small cast in muted but naturalistic style, and shot through with small observations of contempo mainland life and social manners, the pic marginally recalls Zhang’s debut feature, “Mama,” in its simplicity but is also clearly the work of a director who’s finally hitting his stride as he approaches middle age. With kudos upon its Venice launch, this could rack up considerable sales as a quality niche item. Down-the-line TV sales look like a given.
After several years of run-ins with the Chinese authorities — notably with the youth-rock drama “Beijing Bastards” and the gay psychodrama “East Palace, West Palace” — this movie, and the docu “Crazy English,” preemed at Locarno, re-establish Zhang as a “legit” director, in from the indie bad-boy cold though with no loss of sincerity. Pic draws on his documentary interests while remaining a feature in all respects.
With warm underscoring by ace composer Zhao Jiping, the film opens in self-effacing style, intro’ing an average family of four living in the maze-like alleyways of a northern city. Husband and wife (Liang Song, Le Yeping) are both on their second marriage, and their two teen-age daughters couldn’t be more different. The older one, Xiaoqin (Li Jun), is short-haired and more feisty, like her mother, and happy to work in a factory after she leaves high school; the younger, Xiaolan (Liu Lin), is long-haired and studious, and looking to go to university as a way out.
A tiny argument over a missing 5 yuan (60 cents) escalates when the parents each side with their own daughter, exposing latent divisions in the family. Wrongly blamed for the theft, Xiaolan confronts her sister in an alleyway and, in a sudden flash of anger, clocks her over the head with a stick. When Xiaoqin dies in the hospital, Xiaolan is hauled off by the police.
At the 25-minute point, pic flashes forward 17 years, to the present. A small number of prisoners are to be let out of jail to visit their families for the New Year, and Xiaolan is among the lucky ones. Also getting a brief vacation is Chen Jie (Li Bingbing), a young prison guard who excitedly calls her mom to say she’ll be home soon.
Outside the jail, no one comes to pick up Xiaolan and, in a moment of charity, Chen Jie offers to accompany her to her folks’ house. After a series of coincidences that have the two women walking together across the city, and then finding that Xiaolan’s house has been pulled down and her parents moved, pic develops into a kind of road movie as the determined Chen Jie and vacillating Xiaolan slowly bond during their search for the latter’s mother and father.
In the intensely moving final reels, years of walled-up feelings and regret are slowly breached. What easily could have toppled over into melodrama is held firmly in check by Zhang, who adheres to the movie’s naturalistic but well-composed style and remains true to everyday Chinese manners without overdoing either reticence or emotion. In that respect, pic is very different from both the let-loose “Beijing Bastards” and the raw docu “Sons.”
The trio of scripters — who include noted writer Yu Hua and Zhang’s filmmaker wife, Ning Dai — have come up with dialogue that sounds exactly right, and have included small touches, like making the prison officer younger than her charge, that come into dramatic play during the final scenes.
As the uniformed Chen Jie, Li Bingbing holds the pic’s slim fabric together. Her character is initially stern, then friendly but determined, and finally finds herself out of her depth in a complex web of feelings. Liu grows more slowly as Xiaolan, now a grown woman but feeling out of place in modern China and with mixed feelings about a family reunion. Other players are all fine.
Tech credits are unflashy but cleanly appointed, from Chen Xigui’s lensing of wintry Tianjin through Zhao’s gently supportive scoring to the smooth editing by Zhang and Italian cutter Jacopo Quadri. Post-production was done entirely in Italy; for the record, pic is reportedly the first to get official permission to shoot inside a Chinese prison. Chinese title literally means “New Year Homecoming,” which adds an extra resonance missing in the balder English title.