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Kino on Video presents
Seventeen Years (Guo nian hui jia) (1999)

"What have you learned in prison? What did you recite daily? Have you forgotten about 'trust in the fairness of mankind'?"
- Chen Jie (Li Bingbing)

Review By: Matt Peterson  
Published: April 04, 2005

Stars: Lin Liu, Chen Jie
Other Stars: Yeding Li, Song Liang, Yun Li
Director: Zhang Yuan

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (some brief violence)
Run Time: 01h:23m:13s
Release Date: April 05, 2005
UPC: 698452202235
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- A-C-C+ D-

DVD Review

Tao Lan (Lin Liu) and Yu Xiaoqin (Yun Li), stepsisters in the throes of adolescence and high school, find themselves constantly at odds. Yu Xiaoqin is the more attractive and intelligent one, excelling in her studies and looking toward the future. Tao Lan is jealous of her stepsister's fortune; she prefers sleeping to the rigors of schoolwork, and is frequently annoyed by Xiaoqin's latenight study sessions. Each parent has their favorite: Yu Zheng Gao (Song Liang) adores his angelic daughter Xiaoqin, and Tao Airong (Yeding Li) hopes in vain for her daughter to excel. This conflict seems like the typical, petty rift between siblings, but things quickly escalate.

When a five-yuan bill goes missing, Xiaoqin's father has an immediate suspect. Tao Lan is expertly framed by the supposed model child, but no one believes her claims of innocence; her history of late night parties and blatant disregard for rules does not inspire confidence. In a climactic moment, Tao Lan lashes out at Xiaoqin in a fit of rage, landing her in jail for the next seventeen years. It is a long, dark road that transforms the fiery youth into an obedient shadow of a woman. She has suffered for her crime.

The New Year is approaching, and the state has seen fit to grant furlough to several model prisoners so they can spend the holiday with family. Tao Lan is selected, and finds herself on the road with prison guard Chen Jie (Li Bingbing); both are heading for home, but Tao Lan is reluctant to return. Chen Jie insists it is her duty to go; it has been mandated by the state. On the road, the two bond, and Tao Lan finds the courage to face her past. What follows is a reunion none will soon forget.

Zhang Yuan's small film is a patient wonder. This is a superbly crafted piece of work that unfolds with subtlety, capturing the fallacies of family life, including the long troublesome vices of jealousy and rage. The family dynamic on screen is powerful and convincing, brought to life by a fine cast. The conflict between Tao Lan and Yu Xiaoqin is a reflection of their parents, who are also at each other's throats; the kids are frequently used as weapons. Crammed into a small flat, this is a situation primed to explode. The hope of forgiveness is not far behind, however, culminating in the final, skillfully shot frames.

The unexpected relationship between Tao Lan and prison guard Chen Jie is one of the highlights of the picture. The guard, a rather delicate-looking woman, has also been allowed to return home for the New Year, but finds herself helping Tao Lan with the most important transition of her life. This dynamic begins in the expected officious manner, but the guards are eventually dropped, and the two begin to find common ground. Chen Jie's compassion and humility is admirable; it is her presence and skilled encouragement that leads to the possibility of healing.

Aside from exploring themes of crime, punishment, and family, Zhang Yuan has subversively folded in some harsh criticism of communist China. In one scene, a man wearing a jacket emblazoned with "USA" is seen; later, Tao Lan and Chen Jie listen to a taxi driver praising the benefits of running his own business. His wife is critical of the enterprise, but if he had stayed at the local factory, he would have lost his job. I'm surprised this material slipped through the mainland censors.

In a way, the connection between Tao Lan and Chen Jie is another portent of possibility. Perhaps the state and the people can find common ground, leading to freedom, opportunity, forgiveness, and a new beginning.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.66:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The image is a disappointment. Presented in nonanamorphic 1.66:1 with burned-in subtitles, the transfer is muddy, soft, and devoid of fine detail. The print used looks clean, and some bold colors show through the haze. Though watchable, this fine film deserves much better.

Image Transfer Grade: C-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Mandarinno

Audio Transfer Review: The Dolby 2.0 Surround track is noticeably hissy, but has some nice ambient fill. The film's repetitive, yet memorable score has good presence, as does the director's unique use of sound; listen for the symbolic symphony of firecrackers during the final scene.

Audio Transfer Grade: C+


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 10 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English (burned-in) with remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: The only extra is a small text biography of director Zhang Yuan. Technically, this looks to be a release from the "KimStim Collection," and is only distributed by Kino. Blame them.

Extras Grade: D-


Final Comments

Zhan Yuan's patient exploration of family and forgiveness is a small wonder. Its meaningful layers include some brave criticism of communist China. KimStim's release (through Kino) is lackluster, but the film's strength still merits my full recommendation.


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