One of the toughest balancing acts that thoughtful Chinese filmmakers must maintain is how to avoid offending the powerful censorship bureau without compromising their artistic integrity. Failure to work with the censors can lead to a ban on filmmaking for up to ten years. Working too closely with authorities risks undermining an artist’s reputation and self-respect. The answer for skillful directors with something to say is often to make movies with multiple layers of meaning steeped in allegory. Seventeen Years, a 1999 feature film directed by Zhang Yuan, is one such example.
Zhang, a pioneering member of China’s Sixth Generation of filmmakers who is known for his rebellious streak, has had his fair share of run-ins with the authorities. He made several controversial “underground” films early in his career depicting marginalised and disenfranchised members of Chinese society, the most famous being his rock and roll feature Beijing Bastards (1993) and the homosexual-themed East Palace, West Palace (1996). Not surprisingly, Zhang quickly found himself banned from filmmaking.
Seventeen Years, a drama involving a female prisoner’s journey home while on a short parole, is Zhang’s first film after the ban. It also marks his move from “underground” to the surface after he won approval to shoot inside a Chinese prison—a first in China’s film history.
Set in Tianjin, the story is divided into two parts. The first rather melodramatic part begins in the 1970s in a cramped hutong house where 16-year-old Tao Lan (Li Jun), her mother, her stepfather and her stepsister live. It’s an uneasy and disharmonious family where fights erupt quickly over trivial matters. One day, a heated argument explodes over some missing money and Tao is accused of stealing. In an outburst, she accidentally kills her stepsister and is taken away to jail.
In the second part, which employs a documentary style reminiscent of Zhang’s previous features, the movie jumps ahead seventeen years to the 1990s. Tao is inside Tianjin’s women prison along with a few other inmates preparing for a 24-hour home visit over the Chinese New Year holiday as a reward for her good behaviour.
Yet Tao’s way back home proves much more difficult than anticipated. Now in her thirties, she has not kept in touch with her parents during her long jail sentence and is apprehensive about how to face them. While other inmates greet delighted family members and head home, she waits alone at the gate because none of her family is there to fetch her. Tao is now faced with the task of finding her way home alone.
At a busy bus station, Tao is terrified. Intimidated by the pushy crowds and speeding traffic, she is neither able to get on the bus nor cross the street on her own. An off-duty female prison guard named Chen Jie (Li Bingbing) who knows Tao notices her and decides to help her find her way home. The duo soon realizes Tao’s family has moved away and her old neighborhood has been demolished in China’s rush to modernise. In its place there’s a field of rubble and a lone public toilet.
Although Tao repeatedly begs to return to the jail, Chen flatly refuses, and the two charge on. Finally, near nightfall they arrive at the doorsteps of Tao’s parents’ new apartment. Tao refuses to ring the doorbell, and Chen has no choice but to accompany her inside. The reunion is awkward, and only after a long silence do we see an outburst of emotion and sense faint hope for a family reconciliation.
On the surface, Seventeen Years is a film about a repentant prisoner preparing herself for the road home and trying to make good with society with the help of a kind-hearted figure of authority. (This depiction was, no doubt, key to Zhang’s securing censors’ approval of the film). Careful viewers familiar with Zhang’s work, however, will see that it’s anything but meets the eye.
Zhang, who displays greater maturity and nuance in this film than his previous ones, has perfected the art of saying what he wants without being explicit. In doing so, he shows that he’s remained faithful to his passion of focusing on the dispossessed by, in this case, zooming in on marginalized prisoners. In an interview with British film commentator Tony Rayns, Zhang was quoted as saying: “the lives of so-called ‘controversial’ minorities can reveal the dynamics of a society very clearly.” The dynamics he reveals in this film are conveyed mostly through suggestion.
In the film, inspired by a true story, Tao is repeatedly told while in prison: “if you’re committed to being reformed, the world outside will welcome you with open arms. Your future will be very bright. ” By following her achingly painful 24-hour journey home, however, we know that Tao’s future will be anything but bright. In China’s fast-changing society with its wrenching 1980s and 1990s metamorphosis, a 17-year gap might as well be an eternity. Even a normal person would find the pace of change disorientating and daunting, let alone a timid prisoner like Tao whose best defense is to chant “Yes, Prison Captain” every time she’s lectured.
The film’s Chinese title, Guonian Huijia, literally “New Year Homecoming,” can be read allegorically as a nostalgic wish to return to simpler days. From the demolition of Tao’s family home in the name of modernization, to a family fight over a mere 5 yuan, which eventually leads Tao to kill her sister and destroy the family, Zhang seems to be commenting on the destructive nature of capitalism—a theme he has dealt with before in Beijing Bastards. And unfortunately for Tao, “home” will remain elusive, always out of reach.
Seventeen Years has not been immune from criticism, particularly related to its ending. The emotional outburst and overly neat reconciliation at the end of the story seems a bit rushed and surreal. How can this be when family members are only beginning to reconnect and grapple with their past, especially a past punctuated by murder?
But those with some knowledge of how censorship works in China will recognize the constraints artists are under if they wish to show films in the Middle Kingdom. More often than not, this means a happy ending, no matter how improbable it may seem.
Is this a compromise then? Of course it is, but one that allows the filmmaker to reach his Chinese audience and deliver a larger message that’s thought provoking and sobering, a counterweight to the many vacuous productions that have clogged Chinese theaters since the late 1990s.
Subtle, but quietly stunning and meaningful, Seventeen Years is one of the best films aired in China in the last decade and a half and well worth your time.