Prodigal PRC filmmaker
Zhang Yuan, winner of this year's Venice International
Film Festival award for Best Director, has come home
with his film "Seventeen Years."
The 36-year-old director
has won over 20 awards at major international film festivals
over the past decade for features, shorts and music
videos. But his works have mostly been labeled too controversial
and banned by censors at home.
Unlike his other movies,
with the exception of his first film "Mama," Zhang sought
permission from the Chinese government to produce "Seventeen
Years." As a result, some critics are charging that
by collaborating with authorities Zhang sold out and
lost the edge that made his other films so powerful.
But Zhang denies this.
"I didn't collaborate
with the government. I sought permission to produce
this film simply because I wanted to have my film shown
in China. That's all there is to it," Zhang says matter-of-factly.
Besides, he adds, going
through the proper channels wasn't easy. Although the
film was completed last summer, he only learned in early
January of this year that the film was approved for
screening in China.
"Seventeen Years," the
story of a family torn apart by tragedy, touches upon
themes of remorse, reconciliation and salvation. The
movie opens with two teenage step-sisters who attend
the same high school and share the same bedroom. When
one sister accidentally kills the other, she is sentenced
to prison at age 16.
After 17 years, the
convicted sister Tao Lan is granted a weekend pass to
go home for the first time for Chinese New Year. However,
her parents have moved and no one comes to meet her
at the bus station. Her prison guard, a young woman
around her age, then drags a reluctant Tao Lan to find
her parents. What follows is an intense and deeply moving
This is not a happy
film. It is disturbing and tragic, yet there are bittersweet
moments of hope which reassure that even after a lifetime
of despair, deeply buried emotions of love can be revived.
Zhang's bleak setting in the suburbs of an industrial
Chinese city may not be a place everyone can relate
to, but it is impossible not to empathize with the universal
theme of human fragility explored through the relationships
of family members. The young sisters experience sibling
jealousy and rivalry, and at the same time are used
as ammunition in the crossfire of their parents' unstable
marriage. Upon her release, Tao Lan tries to cope with
alienation and separation as she navigates an unfamiliar
society and family.
In "Seventeen Years"
Zhang has, once again, chosen to represent people who
live on the fringes of mainstream society. His first
film "Mama" (1990) told the story of a single Beijing
mother's struggle to raise her mentally-handicapped
son, while "Sons" (1995) recounted the true story of
a family torn by alcoholism and insanity.
"I choose to show these
kinds of people and tell these kinds of stories simply
because they exist. They exist and play an important
part in our society," Zhang explains.
If you've never met
Zhang before you might expect him to be serious and
melancholy given the often disturbing nature of his
films. But he's the kind of person who can usually be
found grinning and he has an uncanny ability to command
attention as soon as he walks into a room. It could
be his signature mass of naturally, wiry black hair
sprouting from his head at all angles, making him look
like he plugs himself into the wall socket every morning.
Or it could be his large, lively eyes that seem to hold
a dozen different thoughts at the same time.
Zhang, talking excitedly
in his sparsely-decorated apartment, explains how and
why his latest film was shot in his trademark documentary
style. Instead of using fancy camera techniques or special
effects, Zhang says he prefers to let the story speak
"I believe the style
I use is at the core of filmmaking. It is the traditional
approach to filmmaking that doesn't intrude upon the
story being told," he explains.
"I think the philosophy
behind the process of my filmmaking is 'to get reality,
forget reality.' I seek reality persistently, but I
can only get to reality when I forget about myself.
Forgetting it is as important as obtaining it."
Indeed watching a Zhang
Yuan film is a bit like being an uninvited guest at
a family argument. In contrast to the fast-paced, "feel-good"
formulae offered by such box-office hits as "Mei Wan
Mei Liao," (Sorry, Baby!), Zhang's films draw viewers
into a slow, dark world as a gritty reality unfolds
on the screen. In the case of "Seventeen Years," the
result is a 90-minute drama that leaves the audience
mentally exhausted and emotional even after leaving
Zhang was first inspired
to make "Seventeen Years" after watching a television
program in 1996 on prisoners returning to society. As
part of his research, Zhang visited a number of prisons.
The film is based loosely on the true story of a girl
sentenced for accidentally killing her sister.
"When I visited the
prisons I met so many young female prisoners who had
been imprisoned for murder. I believe that women go
through great emotional change during adolescence,"
Zhang says. "The idea of having had so much freedom,
which is then suddenly taken away from you--this idea
really struck me."
However, although Zhang
received permission to film at the Tianjin No. 1 Correctional
Facility, the film itself only dedicates about 10 minutes
to the main character's time spent behind bars.
"I didn't want to make
a film about prison life. Of course prison plays an
integral part of the story, but what is most important
is how if affects the family," he says.
The film has received
plenty of praise abroad, with The New York Times describing
Zhang as "possibly the most gifted and original filmmaker
of his generation." Whether the film does well in China
remains to be seen. Critics surmise that in a country
where art-house films are still a rarity, there is a
possibility Chinese audiences just won't get it.
But Zhang thinks they will.
"I don't believe there is anything in this film that
is unreachable, Chinese audiences can fully accept and
understand this film," he maintains. "At the end of
the day, it is up to each individual to see the film
and make of it what they want."
is playing at Chinese theaters through the Chinese New