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There are not a lot of movies from mainland China that get distributed to theaters in the US, and there aren't a significant number available for the home video market either. One film that did make it out on DVD is Yuan Zhang's Seventeen Years, a drama about both the changes that China has undergone, and the effects that a moment of anger can have on a family.
Xiaoqin is the good, studious daughter who helps around the house and hopes to get into college. Her step mother's daughter, Lan, is the exact opposite. She lies to her parents, stays out late and runs with a crowd of delinquents. Their parents seem to be equally mismatched, constantly bickering and fighting. One morning some money turns up missing, and a big fight ensues. Xiaoqin has taken it, but she hides it in Lan's bed and her sister takes the blame. On the way to school Lan catches up to her non-repentant sister, and in a moment of anger accidently kills her.
Lan is sent to jail, and seventeen years pass. She has been a model prisoner and for the New Years holiday she is given a two day leave to visit her parents. When the shuttle from the prison drops her off at a bus station, no one is there to great her though. A young guard from the jail is also on leave, and when she finds Lan sitting in the bus station she decides to see her home. The two spend the rest of the day and much of the night tracking down Lan's mother, and walking through a city that has undergone many changes.
The most interesting aspect of this movie for me was seeing how the working class people lived in China two decades ago, and the contrasting that to the present day scenes in the movie. The squalor of the family's three room house that didn't have running water from the early scenes to the modern apartment that they had at the end of the movie was quite striking.
While this movie does succeed as a travelog, as a drama it is less effective. Though I was drawn into the family's situation at the beginning, when the narrative changes to Lan walking through the city with a prison guard it falls apart. Lan's trepidation about returning home is understandable, but it isn't enough to base the film on. The last hour of this 85 minute film didn't move me the way the fist section did.
There were also some sections that I found a little hard to swallow. The prison was made to look like an attractive place to live. The guards were friendly, the food plentiful and the work minimal. Not the idea I had of prisons in general, much less those of China. I expect that presenting this pleasant looking version of jail was the price the director had to pay for being allowed to film there.
The only audio option is a stereo mix in Mandarin. The dialog is clear, but there is a slight hum in the background. It is only noticeable during the quiet sections and not very distracting. There are not much use made of the soundstage, all of the dialog is centered on the screen.
The major disappointment for me was the subtitles. The English subtitles are burned in, and not optional. Though the majority of people who view this region one DVD will want to use the subtitles, it would have been better to make them optional for those that do speak Mandarin.
For a movie made only five years ago, the print is not very good. The image is very soft, and the colors are muted somewhat. The widescreen image (1.66:1) is not anamorphically enhanced either. There are very occasional instances of print damage, a spot or piece of dirt, but these were rare. The image isn't horrible, but it is below average.
The only extra was a text biography about the director.
Interesting as a visual documentation of life in China, Seventeen Years doesn't wholly succeed as a film. The dramatic elements that start the film off are lost about a third of the way through, and the director is never able to recapture the films momentum. The movie isn't boring or dull, it just isn't captivating or engrossing. Still, it is worth a rental.