Seventeen Years Starring Lin Liu, Bingbing Li, Yeding Li and Song Liang (2005)
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For a great plot or acting, this film certainly does not attract, yet as a foreigner (American) interested in Chinese life and everyday scenes, it does have an appeal. We see a family with two daughters, in their late teens, approaching school-leaving age; one is deliberately portrayed as more virtuous, beautiful and studious, the other whimsical, nonacademic, low in ambition, yet fun-loving and oblivious to her "plainness".
In a side note, I want to make clear that other reviewers seem to have understood immediately that the girls were not related, each the daughter of a remarried divorcees. The father and mother are fighting and bickering over trivialities, yet to this American viewer, reading English subtitles, I did not understand until the homecoming 17 years later that the girls had separate parents altogether.
The less studious (mother's daugher) kills the more studious (father's daughter) inadvertantly, when she hits her on the head with a stick. She is given a sentence of manslaugher, 17 years.
We see the hutong-style streets in which this family lives in cramped quarters, the narrowness of the lanes, and we can presume it is the early 1980's, when economic reforms are first taking off for the Chinese. This may interest a foreign viewer to see, as they are now rapidly being demolished for modern skyscraper apartments. A traditional way of living is vanishing very quickly, seen now in older films.
The prison life seems quiet and orderly, with the female prisoners of various ages brushing their teeth together, all wearing black gym suits, and receiving ceaseless "reform education", the chanting of slogans about correct behavior and attitude, all whilst jogging for exercise behind the prison walls. If this is a model prison, or normal for today's China, one can only guess. It looks okay, if grim, as all parts of older Chinese cities do - gray and grim cement buildings.
Now 35, she is allowed a first visit outside in 17 years, to see her parents for the Chinese New Year. (the Chinese name for the film IS "New Year Reunion"; the English title "Seventeen Years" has a meaning to older Chinese, those 17 years of golden socialism from 1949 to 1966, before Mao's Cultural Revolution and slaughter of millions).
What I found lacking in the story is any sense of the woman's view of her new society, as she sees the hustle-bustle of cold streets around her after 17 years. That she is dead in her emotions, that could well be; but one thinks that she might be a bit happy to leave the prison and see something else. Fear of her parents' anger, the lack of a future, with no education or money, must have been terrifying.
The prison guard helping her find her way home - old hutong dwelling now demolished, she has to walk and hitch rides through new developments of apartments to find the parents - is practical, firm, determined, younger and "good-looking" by Chinese standards. She seems disinterested, but a little fed up at the same time, with the lack of joy in this prisoner's refusal to enjoy her first visit out in 17 years. Slowly she gets involved with helping the dispirited woman regain her family. She begins to see the misery that this sentence has done to all of them.
It is slow-moving, rather dull by normal Western standards, but those who'd like an inside look in the new China, especially concerning the prison system, should have a look. No big thrills, no easy ending, no great new and happy future emerges for our ex-prisoner, but finally the father does seem to forgive her for murdering his daughter. That is the resolution in the end.