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 official channels wasn't easy. Although the
film was completed last summer, he only learned in January
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
Seventeen Years 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 choice of 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' dysfunctional 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 because
they exist and play an important part in our society,"
You might expect Zhang
Yuan to be serious and melancholy given the often disturbing
nature of his films. But he ironically can usually be
found grinning, and he has an uncanny ability to command
attention as soon as he enters a room. It could be his
signature mass of naturally, wiry black hair sprouting
from his head at all angles. 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 returns to the roots of filmmaking. It is a traditional
approach that doesn't intrude upon the story being told,"
"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."
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 drama that leaves the audience mentally exhausted
and emotionally drained after leaving the theater.
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."
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," Zhang 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 inaccessible, Chinese audiences will be able to accept
and understand it," he maintains. "It is up to each
individual to see the film and make of it what they
Seventeen Years will
be shown with English subtitles at Cherry Lane Movies
on Friday, March 10 at 8 p.m. Tickets are RMB50 each.
(See Zhaole directory for address)