China, 2016, colour, 2.35:1, 107 mins.
Director: Zhang Mo 张末.
Versatile playing by actress Ni Ni is undercut by a bitty, poorly developed script.
Beijing, the present day. Twenty-eight-year-old Liang Xia (Ni Ni) and design-company executive Mao Liang (Huo Jianhua), 34, have been in a relationship for 10 years and living together for five. Fully expecting Mao Liang to propose to her now – as he originally promised when they met at high school a decade earlier – she’s disappointed when he still procrastinates. Her best friend Bai Xiaoning (Ma Su) says he just needs a push – and at her own wedding she suggests publically that Mao Liang proposes to Liang Xia. Cornered, Mao Liang drives off and threatens to end the relationship. Devastated by his reaction, and caught up in a traffic accident, Liang Xia unthinkingly eats from a free promotion box of Magic Chocolate 魔法巧克力 by the Forever Lasting Youth & Happiness Company. After collapsing and waking up, she thinks it’s 2005, even though her surroundings and her body haven’t changed. Intoxicated by the mental regression to her teens, she tells Mao Liang to move out of their flat and goes clubbing with Bai Xiaoning. Later that evening, however, her brain switches back to 28, and both she and Bai Xiaoning are at a loss to the cause. Later, after eating another chocolate, Liang Xia regresses again and in the metro starts sketching a handsome guy, Yan Yan (Wang Dalu), who’s in her carriage. (She’d always wanted to be a professional artist, and study in France, when a teenager.) After Liang Xia switches back to 28 again, Bai Xiaoning realises the chocolates are the cause; Liang Xia decides not eat any more, as she wants to patch things up with Mao Liang. Meanwhile, Mao Liang’s boss has given him 48 hours to find and commission a design package from the artist on the metro, whose picture and work have been posted on Weibo. Recognising Liang Xia, he invited her to dinner and explains the problem. But he doesn’t realise that only the 17-year-old Liang Xia can paint in such a way; the 28-year-old version has lost the skill. Wanting to pleae Mao Liang, Liang Xia has only one option – to carry on eating the chocolates. But there’s a finite number and the effect of each one lasts for only five hours.
Less than a month after the misfire of time-travel adventure The Warriors Gate 勇士之门 (2016), Mainland actress Ni Ni 倪妮 bounces back at the box office with another kind of time-travel movie, rom-com Suddenly Seventeen 28岁未成年, in which a 28-year-old finds her brain regresses by 11 years whenever she eats some magic chocolates. The fluffy comedy, marbled with thoughts on how we all benefit from youthful energy and goals but also need to move on sometime, makes far better use of Ni’s talents, even if the script doesn’t measure up to its early promise. It’s an interesting but flawed directing debut by Zhang Mo 张末, 33, elder daughter of veteran Mainland film-maker Zhang Yimou 张艺谋. Dad, who discovered Ni with his The Flowers of War 金陵十三钗 (2011), also produced, and his next film, costume blockbuster The Great Wall 长城, coincidentally opens a week after his scion’s.
The daughter of Zhang Yimou and his first wife Xiao Hua 肖华, Zhang Mo went to high school in the US and on to higher education there (architecture at Columbia University, scriptwriting/directing at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts); she’s worked as an a.d. and in the editing department on her dad’s past four films. For Seventeen she’s cast her net beyond the Mainland, teaming Ni with two Taiwan actors and off-screen using two Chinese Americans, Taiwan-born d.p. Zhu Zhigang 朱志刚 [Jeffrey Chu], now based in the Mainland, and US-born composer Tian Zhiren 田志仁 [Christopher Tin]. On a technical level, she’s turned in a professional package, with her own editing, and the result, though centred on the old Asian chestnut of marrying by 28 or becoming a “leftover woman” 剩女, is light without being either too girly or too preachy.
The script is freely based on the most popular novel of online writer “black.f” (pen name of Liu Chang 刘畅), first published on the Web in 2006 and in book form in 2011 (with the English title Perfect Baby) and most recently in 2016 (with the English title Still a Minor at 28). The film’s theme of a 17-year-old brain in a 28-year-old woman’s body has also been re-tooled by Le Vision as an online, 26-part drama (see poster, left) that was first released on 23 Nov 2016; made by a completely different team, it stars Jiang Mengjie 蒋梦婕 and Jiang Chao 姜潮. The main characters have the same names as in the novel and film but the plot is substantially different, set at high school.
Though the concept slightly recalls Miss Granny 重返20岁 (2015), the time difference here is only 11, not 50, years and involves just a mental change rather than a complete transformation. The screenplay squeezes in a few early jokes about the 17-year-old not recognising computer tablets and Beijing’s Olympic stadium but most of the humour is attitudinal, contrasting the poised, immaculate yuppie of 28 with the freewheeling, arty and clubbing teenger of 17. Ni, 28 in real life, is good in both incarnations and proves she can carry a movie: she handles the change in a mostly physical way, and is especially entertaining as the loose-limbed, vaguely punky teenager. It’s one of her best performances in a still relatively short career that’s only seen eight films of varying quality in five years.
Unfortunately she doesn’t get a chance to generate much chemistry with her male leads, especially the wooden Huo Jianhua 霍建华, 36 – Taiwan’s version of Gu Tianle 古天乐 [Louis Koo] – but also with Wang Dalu 王大陆, 25, who was fine as a cocky brawler in Taiwan rom-com Our Times 我的少女时代 (2015) but here is parachuted in and kicked out of the story purely at the writers’ convenience. Huo’s character is given virtually no reason for his actions, and the actor’s performance doesn’t provide any more clues. In fact, Ni’s best chemistry is with actress Ma Su 马苏, 35, as her ever-present BFF: better known for her TV work, Ma provides the film with its most consistent, and most consistently humorous, character, in her most prominent film role to date.
Even Ma’s performance, however, can’t disguise the fact that Ni is performing in a vacuum for a lot of the time. The bitty script gives her one after another setpiece (such as a funny tennis match where she’s meant to lose to her husband’s boss) but doesn’t draw an especially involving character for her. After the initial humour of the situation has worn off, Zhang and her co-writers have difficulty in really developing the central idea, which takes on an almost vampiric flavour as the magic chocolates become scarcer, the heroine becomes trapped in her artificial success, and she keeps looking for her next fix. The resolution is especially cliched – with one of those underwater dream sequences in which the lead character struggles with her alter ego.
Despite the script’s myriad weaknesses, Ni and Ma manage to keep things bouncy for most of the way, and the film’s technical envelope is very smooth, from Tian’s easy-listening score to the versatile visuals of d.p. Zhu (Lovers in the Water 摆手舞之恋, 2011; horror The Chrysalis 女蛹之人皮嫁衣, 2013). The Chinese title means “28, and Still Not Grown Up”.
Presented by Le Vision Pictures (Beijing) (CN).
Script: Zhang Mo, Wu Yushi, Yin Wei, Zhang Hongyi. Online novel: black.f. Photography: Zhu Zhigang [Jeffrey Chu]. Editing: Zhang Mo. Music: Tian Zhiren [Christopher Tin]. Sound: Jason S. Schweitzer.
Cast: Ni Ni (Liang Xia), Huo Jianhua (Mao Liang), Ma Su (Bai Xiaoning/Four-Eyes Bai), Wang Dalu (Yan Yan), Yu Xintian (Xiaoyu, Mao Liang’s assistant), Liu Bing, Wang Xichao.
Release: China, 9 Dec 2016.