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Review: Growing Pains (2017)

Growing Pains


China, 2017, colour, 2.35:1, 91 mins.

Director: Peng Fa 彭发 [Danny Pang].

Rating: 4/10.

Simplistic, poorly written high-school movie isn’t helped by over-literal direction.


Hunan province, southern China, the present day. Senior high-school student Xia Yuanyuan (Xu Jiao), 17, dreams in class about manga characters, her only real interest apart from Taiwan American singer Wang Lihong, whom she’s idolised all her life. Her parents divorced when she was young and she’s been raised by her paternal grandmother, who indulges her. Always bottom of the class, she has the university entrance exam in three months’ time and is constantly berated by her martinet class teacher Gu (Ju Zhaojie). After a row one day with him, she storms out and goes to the beach with biker/hippie friend Luo Tao (Lu Nuo), who is a member of the same manga-cosplay group. They both rail against the conformist world. Following his collapse after Xia Yuanyuan’s walkout, Gu is ordered to rest and younger replacement teacher Li Mi (Cai Zhuoyan) takes over. Xia Yuanyuan again walks out when she finds the words “student trash” 学渣 written on her desk. Li Mi finds out what happened from nerdy student Gu Mingyao (Hu Xia), who’s known Xia Yuanyuan since primary school and is her only real friend in class. He, however, is under intense pressure from his father to pass the entrance exam and study science & engineering at a good university. Luo Tao takes Xia Yuanyuan to a bar to relax when both of them should be at the cosplay group’s rehearsal; fellow member Lisha, who likes Luo Tao, blames everything on Xia Yuanyuan. To bring the competitive class together, Li Mi pairs the students off at desks; Gu Mingyao offers to sit with Xia Yuanyuan and she starts to take more of an interest in studying, which further annoys ambitious class head Lin Wei (Shi Chaojinzi) who secretly fancies Gu Mingyao. Also jealous of the time that Xu Jiao now spends with Gu Mingyao is Luo Tao, who warns him off. But Gu Mingyao denies he is Xia Yuanyuan’s boyfriend, just as Xia Yuanyuan denies she is Luo Tao’s girlfriend.


The whole cast goes down with the ship in Growing Pains 会痛的十七岁, a high-school movie centred on a lonely dreamer that should have an ingenuous, fairytale feel but ends up just looking simplistic. In the lead role, young Mainland actress Xu Jiao 徐娇 is fine within the parameters she’s given and has a fair stab at her character’s rebelliousness, just squeezing the film an extra point; but the script by theatre writer-director Lei Zhilong 雷志龙 (who worked on the offbeat black comedy The Insanity 你好,疯子!, 2016) is all over the place and direction by Peng Fa 彭发 [Danny Pang] likewise. In his first excursion beyond horror and action – even in films co-directed with his twin brother Peng Shun 彭顺 [Oxide Pang] – the 51-year-old Hong Konger doesn’t seem to have a clue about the characters he’s dealing with. The film has crashed at the Mainland box office, taking a tiny RMB7.5 million.

In her second collaboration with Peng, following their okay low-budget horror The Strange House 六世古宅 (2015), Xu, 20, plays a 17-year-old who should be studying hard for the university-entrance exam but spends her time dreaming about manga, cosplay and her longtime idol, Taiwan American singer Wang Lihong 王力宏. Pulling her in opposite directions are two men: a nerdy swot who’s been her friend since childhood (played by geeky-looking singer Hu Xia 胡夏, 27, the shy cousin in The Left Ear 左耳, 2015) and a rich kid-turned-hippie biker who’s part of her cosplay group (more charismatically played by Chinese-German actor-model Lu Nuo 鲁诺, 30). Somewhere in the middle, as a sympathetic authority figure, Hong Kong actress-singer Cai Zhuoyan 蔡卓妍 [Charlene Choi] speaks her Mandarin dialogue v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y with a Cantonese accent and looks completely miscast as a high-school teacher in Hunan.

Lei’s poorly structured script never gets to grips – even on a moderate level – with any of the themes it lays out, from the lead’s obsession with manga and the singer Wang, through various class/family issues, to the putative central love story. Instead, it just throws everything into the pot, with exaggerated stereotypes and the genre’s usual dramatic cliches, and resolves the mess with an unlikely student rebellion and kiss-up ending. The film also isn’t done any favours by Peng’s literal direction, which has no viewpoint of its own or any sense of establishing an overall tone. Production values are okay but nothing special.

The film appears to be set in landlocked Hunan province but has one scene set by the sea. (Shooting was actually in Zhuhai city, across from Hong Kong.) The Chinese title means “Painful Seventeen”. Despite its almost identical Chinese title, the film has no connection with the Youku web drama series Seventeen Blue 会痛的17岁 (2015), based on the book I’m Not a Bad Girl 我不是坏女生 by prolific Sichuan writer Rao Xueman 饶雪漫.


Presented by Hengxing Film (CN), Ningbo Shisheng Shendu Pictures (CN).

Script: Lei Zhilong. Photography: Zhang Ruigeng. Visual effects: Liu Nan.

Cast: Xu Jiao (Xia Yuanyuan), Hu Xia (Gu Mingyao), Lu Nuo (Luo Tao), Cai Zhuoyan [Charlene Choi] (Li Mi, replacement teacher), Ju Zhaojie (Gu, teacher), Wang Lihong (himself), Liu Yingyi (Liu Tong, teacher), Shi Chaojinzi (Lin Wei).

Release: China, 15 Sep 2017.