Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 4, September 2000
Dir. Zhang Yuan

Seventeen Years
(Guo nian Hui jia)

Colour, 90mins, Mandarin, China/Italy, 1999.
Cast : Liu Lin, Li Bingbing, Li Yeding,
Liang Song, Li Yun

reviewed by Olivia Khoo

  1. Seventeen Years is the latest feature film by Chinese director Zhang Yuan. The screenplay was co-written by Zhang's wife - Ning Dai, with Yu Hua and Zhu Wen. Also known as Diciassette Anni in Italy, the film won the Special Prize for Direction at the 1999 Venice Film Festival.
  2. The story centres around a family in a northern Chinese town - a couple who have remarried, each with a daughter from a previous partner. Xiaoqin (Li Jun) - the father's daughter - is studious and ambitious; she wants to go to college, and to escape from their small town and oppressive home. Tao Lan (Liu Lin), her stepsister, is more content to stay at home. For motives unknown, Xiaoqin steals a five yuan note from her father, and hides it on Tao Lan's bed. A divisive altercation ensues, as the father (Yu Zhenggao, played by Liang Sung) accuses his wife (Tao Airong, played by Li Yeping), of giving the money to her daughter. Tao Lan is blamed for the theft when the money is found on her bed, and after a confrontation with her sister, Tao Lan hits Xiaoqin on the head with a stick, accidentally killing her.

    A Socialist Re-newal : Seventeen Years and the New Year Homecoming
  3. We are reintroduced to Tao Lan after almost Seventeen Years in prison. She has been chosen as part of a group of well-behaved inmates to return home for the New Year's holiday in order to 'reunite the family'. Each of the inmates is met at the bus station by their family, except for Tao Lan. Tao Lan's prison captain - Chen Jie (Li Bingbing) has also been given special leave to return home for the holidays, but when she arrives at the bus station, all of the tickets to her home town - He'an, have sold out. She decides to accompany Tao Lan home, as her family is also from He'an.
  4. It has been two and a half years since Tao Lan has last seen her family, and they have been relocated to the outskirts in Chengguan, their old house demolished. Tao Lan seems out of place in the new home; she is now a grown woman, but has not participated in modern Chinese society for seventeen years. She tells Jie that she would rather return to prison, but Jie tells her that it was an honour to be chosen to return home, and that 'society will welcome you once again'. Nevertheless Jie enters the family home with Tao Lan, and tells Tao Lan's parents that they must be supportive of their daughter. She says of Tao Lan's seventeen years in prison, 'That's a very important period in the life of a young woman, maybe even the best years of a woman's life. She spent them in prison'.
  5. Within the broader context of China's history, these seventeen years can be seen to represent a return to socialist ideals. The 'Seventeen Years' (1949-1966) is a term given to the period between the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, and the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. The 'Seventeen Years' is widely viewed as the Golden Age of Chinese socialism, and a source of sentimentalism and nostalgia.[1] Whether or not Zhang intended such a reference, the literal translation of the Chinese title, Guo nian Hui jia, - 'New Year Homecoming' - suggests a similarly nostalgic wish for a re-turn.
  6. In a different, albeit related, context, Chua Beng-Huat notes that the emergence of Asian-values (guanxi) discourses coincided historically with the demise of Soviet socialism.[2] Chua suggests that this historical coincidence has at least two major effects. One is that the term 'socialism' as a political discourse has been tainted, through the effects of Soviet-practiced socialism. Socialism is no longer a viable counterdiscourse to capitalism in China (or in Asia more broadly). Thus, there is a need for the collective, the social, and the familial to be reconsidered and reconstituted. This guanxi 'collectivism' is such a rearticulation - one which can be viewed not necessarily in essentialist terms, but rather, within broader global political discourses (whereby the social is maintained against forms of neo-capitalism). In Seventeen Years the family home was demolished as a consequence of modernisation, and the cause of death and division in the family was money. The guanxi discourses presented in this film are thus not just about what is essentially 'Chinese', but they signal a return to the 'social', against the destructive effects of capitalism, as well as a form of collectivism imbricated also to a concept of the strategic regionality of Asia in a global arena.

    The 'Sixth Generation': Sexuality, Censorship, and the New Chinese Cinema
  7. The New Chinese Cinema is marked by two main factors - its transnationality, and its history of censorship. The Fifth Generation (the first class to graduate from the Beijing Film Academy after the Cultural Revolution, in 1982), were lauded by some, and denigrated by others, for their presentation of the spectacular and the exotic in China's history. Internationally acclaimed at festivals, these films translated local, national and transnational politics and issues into pure cinematic spectacles.
  8. Sixth Generation films (produced by the 1989 graduating class), are also heavily constituted by film festivals and awards, but far from privileging aesthetics over politics, films of the Sixth Generation are inhabited by post-Tiananmen disillusionment, and tighter censorship controls. The Ministry for Radio, Film and Television, and the Film Bureau, have instantiated strict new rules governing domestic production. Films in regional dialects are to be ceased, and a limit has been placed on the number of 'co-productions' which can be made with Hong Kong. All of Zhang's films are thus considered 'unofficial' (and therefore 'illegal'), because they are produced outside this system of approvals.

    East Palace, West Palace (1997) was Zhang's fifth feature, and the fourth in a row not to be seen in China. Zhang featured on the Film Bureau's notorious blacklist in 1994, where he was one of six film and video directors who were 'not to be financed, supplied with equipment or services or in any other way supported by companies or individuals'.[3]

    Seventeen Years was thus transnationally produced - supported by the Montecinemaverita Foundation (Switzerland), The Swiss Agency for Development and Co-Operation, The United Colors of Benetton (Italy), Radiotelevisione Italiana, and Cinerent (Beijing) Ltd. It is a co-production of Keetman Ltd and Xi'an Film Studio (China) and Fabrica (Italy), in association with Ocean Film Co (Hong Kong).
  9. Described by some critics as 'urban realist,' the films of Zhang Yuan, and his classmate (and frequently collaborating cinematographer) - Zhang Xigui - present a vision of China different to the landscaped, 'natural' preoccupations of the Fifth Generation. Yet, as with the Fifth Generation, the Sixth is also commodifiable, transnational, and diasporic. New mobilities of capital have meant that production has been effected through transnational backing and global distribution networks.

    Zhang Yuan's previous feature East Palace, West Palace, is another transnationally produced film. Produced by Quelqu'un D'autre in France, with the participation of the Ministère Français de la Culture and the Ministère des Affaires Etrangère. It featured as part of the 1997 Cannes Official Selection. Censored by China, copies of the film were only available in the West because the negative was in France. Zhang was placed under house arrest and his passport was seized.

  10. 'East Palace' and 'West Palace' are the colloquial vernaculars for the public toilets on either side of Tiananmen. The film is consistently cited as the 'first gay film' in China. East Palace, West Palace displaces the silencing of homosexuality in China through the seemingly paradoxical mode of the confessional. A gay man is interrogated over the course of one night by a police officer, whose feelings toward his subject are conflicted - progressing from disgust to desire and epistemophilia. The police officer says, 'You've got a problem and I'm going to cure you. Now talk'. This psychoanalytic 'talking cure' is in direct contrast to the muteness of Seventeen Years, where silence works in much more profound ways in order to constitute the possibility of same-sex desire.
  11. In East Palace, West Palace, a strange interplay of desire and power is rendered through the performative, with the police-officer (Shi, played by Hu Jun) standing over his object of interrogation, A-Lan (Si Han), who is kneeling. A-Lan says, 'The convict loves her executioner, the thief loves her jail keeper'. These tropes are carried through in a more subtle form in Seventeen Years, where a nascent relationship between the prison captain, Jie, and the prisoner, Tao Lan, is silenced, as the prison captain literally returns her charge to the family home, and to socialist ideals. Seventeen Years complicates the effects of subordination and homosociality between women through the fact that Jie, the prison guard, is younger than her charge, Tao Lan.
  12. The master/servant power relationship, played out in both films, represents the many facets of repression prevalent in Chinese society. The form of the confessional in East Palace, West Palace comments more broadly on Chinese society's forms of subordination and prohibition, particularly in relation to the silencing of discourses surrounding homosexuality. In an interview with Tony Rayns, Zhang mentions that 'the lives of so-called "controversial" minorities can reveal the dynamics of a society very clearly'.[4] Homosexuality is not dealt with explicitly in Seventeen Years, although it can been seen to be represented by the leitmotif of a stick of lipstick. As Tao Lan prepares to leave the prison for home, she drops a stick of lipstick which is picked up by Jie, the prison captain, as they exchange looks. The next scene involves the inmates of the women's prison reciting articles of law, such as 'Homosexuality is forbidden.' A cut again shows Tao Lan alone in the bus station, where she pulls out her lipstick without using it, just before Jie re-enters the scene to escort her home, and back into the fold of society. The lipstick functions as a signifier of femininity, and a constant reminder of the compounded complications of gender and sexuality. Thus, Seventeen Years is also a film about repression - personal (sexual), and societal. In both of these films, allegory functions not so much as a theoretical consideration, but as a strategic necessity.
  13. The mobilities of sexuality and desire are played out explicitly in East Palace, West Palace, and, in more muted terms, in Seventeen Years, as inflected through gender. There is a complex relationship between state discourses (effected through the socialist re-turn), social ideology, and local cultural politics (particularly, as read from the point of view of diasporic queer spectatorship). Seventeen Years is an extremely powerful film, whose suggestiveness is amplified when these ideological and temporal considerations are held in mind.


    Photo for East Palace, West Palace is from: The MovieSite: Movies for Africa.

    Photos of Zhang Yuan and Seventeen Years are from the The 23rd Sao Paulo International Film Festival website.

    [1] Zhang Xudong, Chinese Modernism in the Era of Reforms: Cultural Fever, Avant-Garde Fiction, and the New Chinese Cinema, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1997, p. 222.

    [2] Chua Beng-Huat, '"Asian-Values" Discourse and the Resurrection of the Social,' positions 7, 2, (1999): 587.

    [3] Tony Rayns, 'Provoking Desire,' Sight and Sound, 6, 7, (July 1996): 26.

    [4] Tony Rayns, 'Provoking Desire,' p. 28.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

This page has been optimised for 800x600
and is best viewed in either Netscape 2 or above, or Explorer 2 or above.
From February 2008, this paper has been republished in Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific from the following URL:

HTML last modified: 20 March 2008 1456 by Carolyn Brewer.

© Copyright