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Plot: will Liang find her true self again with all the obligations of adulthood?

Suddenly Seventeen (28岁未成年) is that other movie that Mainland China actress Ni Ni starred in in 2016. On the opposite end of the cinematic spectrum from the French co-production Enter the Warrior’s Gate (2016) Ni Ni shines in Suddenly Seventeen as never before. Suddenly Seventeen was the directorial debut of Zhang Mo, daughter of acclaimed filmmaker Zhang Yi-Mou and a romantic comedy that can easily compete with anything coming out of Hollywood. That is if the average American could be bothered to read subtitles or watch a foreign film in the first place. It hits all the right notes and Ni Ni can show why she’s probaby the best actress of her generation while wearing a lot of the latest fashion. It mercilessly tugs at the heartstrings and is magically optimistic before anything else. It might be formulaic to a fault, but everything in Suddenly Seventeen falls in place beautifully. If this was Japanese they’d probably call it kawaii or fuwa fuwa but Sudden Seventeen comes to us from Mainland China. It’s not quite Amélie (2001) but it comes close. Hardly the worst of comparisons.

Zhang Yi-Mou is the kind of director that isn’t very well known in the western hemisphere. Gong Li acted very much as his muse as she appeared in his Red Sorghum (1987), Operation Cougar (1989), Raise the Red Lantern (1991), The Story of Qiuju (1992), Lifetimes (1994), Shanghai Triad (1995), and Coming Home (2014). Inevitably Yi-Mou’s most popularly known titles in the Anglo-Saxon world are the human interest drama Not One Less (1999) and his colorful big budget Hong Kong fantasy wuxia spectacles Hero (2002), and House Of Flying Daggers (2004) with Jet Li and Curse of the Golden Flower (2006) with Chow Yun-Fat. Zhang Mo worked as an editor on her father’s A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop (2009) and Under the Hawthorn Tree (2010) before moving up to assistant directing on his The Flowers of War (2011) with Ni Ni and Christian Bale. Suddenly Seventeen is entirely her own as she directed, edited, and co-wrote her debut feature. What better way for a daughter to step out of the shadow of her famous father than with her own rom-com?

On the morning of their tenth anniversary Liang Xia (Ni Ni) is convinced that her fiancé Mao Liang (Wallace Huo Chien-Hua) is going to propose to her. After 5 years of dating and 5 years of living together Liang has given up on her dream of becoming a famous painter. When he doesn’t and the diamond ring turns out to a business present for the wife of Mr. Gao (Pan Bin-Long), Mao’s client at his design company, Liang spirals into binge eating and depression. Impulsively she buys a box of Forever Lasting Youth and Happiness Magic Chocolate after seeing a TV commercial. Her BFF Bai Xiao-Ning or Four Eyes (Ma Su) encourages Liang to force Mao into proposing to her in public, something which she does at the wedding of their mutual friend Xiao Yu (Liu Bing). The plan backfires and Mao breaks up with Liang. Certain that she’s at fault for the failure she tries the Magic Chocolate and transforms back into her wide-eyed, flirty, rebellious younger self (or for 5 hours at least). Suddenly Seventeen again Liang stirs not only the interest of Mao but also that of the much younger Yan Yan (Darren Wang Ta-Lu). Now that she rekindled her passion for art and life again – will Liang be able unite her own interests with the needs of Mao and those of her boundlessly optimistic younger self?

Ni Ni must without a single doubt be the most talented and beautiful Asian actress since Joey Wong Yo-Chin and Chingmy Yau Suk-Ching. Since debuting in The Flowers of War (2011) from Zhang Mo’s father in a few years she has become one of the most sought-after Chinese actresses together with Fan Bingbing. Before landing in Tsui Hark’s beautiful disaster The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia (2017) she starred in the 2015 Chinese remake of Bride Wars (2009) and Luc Besson’s comically inane period costume action-adventure wuxia Enter the Warrior’s Gate (2016). As steely-eyed and constipated she was in The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia (2017) so much more lovable and adorable she’s in Suddenly Seventeen. In tradition of every great actress that ever played a dual role Ni Ni is allowed to indulge with different hairstyles and fashion. In a nice touch to indicate the change whenever Liang turns into her 17-year old self colors become highly saturated and when she returns to her old self low saturation sets in. It’s a cost-effective visual effect that has a profound effect on the viewer and helps visualize Liang’s differing state of mind on which demographic she currently inhabits.

Suddenly Seventeen is every bit as corny and every bit as formulaic as you’d expect of a big Mainland China production. It’s a romantic comedy that’s in part a gender-swapped The Family Man (2000) with a healthy dose of Big (1988) and a bit of 13 Going On 30 (2004) in reverse to even things out. A great deal of the comedy is modeled after every bodyswap time-travel movie since Freaky Friday (1976), Like Father Like Son (1987), and Vice Versa (1988) – except that Ni Ni trades places with her younger self in the present. Liang comes to a better understanding about herself and rediscovers her passions by letting her younger self run amok. As she tries to clean up the messes 17-year old Liang leaves behind while trying to hide her from those immediately surrounding her. She comes to the conclusion that having her younger self at her disposal might actually benefit her life, which was in an impasse ever since she started dating Mao, and allow her to spread her wings, both personally as well as professionally. It’s the old fish out of water convention that continues to be remarkably effective when used properly. Ni Ni’s transformation from sharply-dressed young woman (in 2016 she was 28 after all) to a denim-wearing, wild haired 17-year old party girl that is every bit as enjoyable as Jennifer Garner waking up in her thirty-year-old body in 13 Going On 30 (2004) and discovering that, yes, she has breasts.

A point of contention could be that Suddenly Seventeen is as hyper-polished and thus a bit bland. It’s exactly the sort of product you’d expect from a known dynasty of filmmakers. The level of craft and attention to detail coupled with the cinematography from Jeffrey Chu will inevitably lead to it being labeled as soulless. There’s a time and place for by-the-numbers rom coms like Suddenly Seventeen. As formulaic and predictable as they tend to be the relentless optimism from Suddenly Seventeen is endearing and infectious, to say the least. Zhang Mo couldn’t have left a more favorable impression than she did here. In the last decade or so Mainland China has been in a habit of remaking Japanese, and American properties for the domestic market and Suddenly Seventeen is one such features. It piqued our interest enough to be curious what Zhang Mo could do in the period costume wuxia (whether it’s fantasy or historical) or martial arts/action genres if she was coupled with somebody like like Yuen Wo-Ping or Tsui Hark. Even if Mo just makes a career out of dramas and romances she can be counted upon to deliver quality work. There’s no shortage of both on the Chinese domestic market making it a treacherous landscape to explore. Suddenly Seventeen doesn’t have to worry about the restrictions that its lesser funded cousins have, and that’s part of its appeal. Suddenly Seventeen is the sort of movie you’d expect to be remade in Bollywood or South Korea. We’re surprised that hasn’t happened yet.

Plot: can a maiden fair save the realm from the evil Snow Queen?

The early years and filmography of California indie director Rene Perez offers a wide array of features across a number of genres. Most notably among them the zombie horror franchise The Dead and the Damned (2011-2015) and the western / Predator (1987) crossover Alien Showdown: The Day the Old West Stood Still (2013). Unique to these early years are Perez’ European fairytale adaptations which typically play fast and loose with their source material. On the plus side many of these adaptations star early Perez muses Irina Levadneva, Nadia Lanfranconi, and Jenny Allford. In that sense it’s emblemic of the other two that would follow. The Snow Queen has little to nothing to do with the timeless Hans Christian Andersen fairytale upon which it is allegedly based, and largely exists as preamble to get Irina Levadneva, Aurelia Scheppers, and Jenny Allford out of their clothes. It even has the gall to insert a completely unnecessary and alien para-military subplot that comes across as a technical exercise for some of his later productions. Sleeping Beauty (2014) and Little Red Riding Hood (2016) both introduced foreign elements into their main plots, but at least they bore some vague semblance to the classic European fairytales which ostensibly served as their conceptual basis.

That The Snow Queen would bear almost no resemblance to the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale is a given. Only the Gerda, and Kai characters, and both the Troll and The Snow Queen are accounted for, both none of the plot remotely resembles the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale. At heart The Snow Queen apparently wants to be a fantastique, a genre practiced primarily in France and Spain in the nineteen-seventies. As with many an early Perez feature The Snow Queen too is a victim of padding and is filled to the gill with atmospheric scenic shots that do nothing to forward the story. Sleeping Beauty (2014) suffered from much of the same defects, thankfully Rene would have remedied this tendency by the time he lensed the original Playing with Dolls (2015) and its many sequels. Just when you think that Perez is going to get to the meat of the story a completely unnecessary and alien para-military subplot, that feels not only wildly out of place, but should have been its own feature altogether, is introduced. The Snow Queen comes across as a barely concealed test-run for Playing with Dolls (2015) and like The Obsidian Curse (2016) a few years down the line feels more like a technical exercise than a movie. The fantasy mainplot hardly aspires to anything more than advanced cosplaying and never attains Arrowstorm Entertainment level of professionalism.

A distant kingdom has been plunged into eternal winter by a curse from the Snow Queen (Nadia Lanfranconi). The only thing that can stop the Snow Queen is a magic mirror. Wandering the snowbound forest fair maiden Gerda (Irina Levadneva, as Iren Levy) is happy when her man Kai (Robert Amstler) returns from the Crusades. The Snow Queen has dispatched a troll to capture whoever possesses the magic mirror. That just so happens to be Kai, and he’s imprisoned by one of the Snow Queen’s spells. In the village a cleric brother Liolinus (John J. Welsh) posits only innocent and pure Gerda can withstand the Snow Queen, and sends her on a perilous quest. Meanwhile, on the other side of time, the US Army has ordered Colonel Richard Wagner (David Reinprecht) to locate and retrieve an expensive prototype of body armor, and the culprit responsible for the theft. To that end he has tracked down deserter Valtranz (Robert S. Dixon) to a remote snowbound forest. In that same forest a trio of scientists – Walter (Ian Dalziel), Annika Hansen (Aurelia Scheppers), and Nichelle (Jenny Allford) – are conducting investigations into inexplicable energy surges in the area. What all three parties will come to realize is that they’re all drawn to the nefarious Snow Queen.

Aurelia Scheppers actually had a career prior to working Perez. She appeared in music videos from P!nk (‘Fuckin’ Perfect’) and Lifehouse (‘Halfway Gone’), and had guest roles in series as Lie to Me (2009), Bones (2009), The Young and the Restless (2012), and Switched at Birth (2014). Her highest-profile guest roles have been in It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (2015), GLOW (2017), and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2017). The same goes for Robert Amstler, and Raven Lexy. Amstler once played bit parts in A-list movies as Flightplan (2005) and The Lincoln Lawyer (2011), but now seems lost in low budget hell. Lexy from her side had bit parts in Entourage (2000), and Numb3rs (2008) and even starred alongside Jason Statham in Crank: High Voltage (2009). Like her colleague Irina Levadneva, Lexy appeared in only three Rene Perez features. The year before she was in Demon Hunter (2012), and the year after in The Dead the Damned and the Darkness (2014), which also featured Levadneva. Irina would make her final Perez appearance in his Little Red Riding Hood (2016).

Jenny Allford’s sole claim to fame is an uncredited part as one of the party chicks in Seth MacFarlane’s Ted (2012). From there she descended straight into the low budget hell known as TomCat Films. In that capacity she appeared in Captain Battle: Legacy War (2013), and Lizzie Borden's Revenge (2013). On both occassions she shared the screen with Marlene Mc'Cohen. In case of the latter that also meant that former porn star Veronica Ricci was on hand. You know that there’s trouble ahead when the porn star acts better than the alleged actresses, and the poster art is better than the movie. Not that that always is the case, mind, Ricci was pretty fucken abysmal in Mc'Cohen’s mockbuster Interstellar Wars (2016). Whether Allford’s lot has improved is entirely up for debate, but TomCat Films is a fate so awful that you wish it upon nobody. Well, it’s a step above Neil Breen, but we’re not sure how much that’s saying exactly.

As would sadly become obvious in the following years simple economics forced director Rene Perez to take quite a few liberties with the material he was adapting. All of which would be perfectly alright if actually served the story at hand. It doesn’t here. The Snow Queen desperately wants to be a fantastique, or the closest proxy to that. It isn’t. At best this could have been a loose remake of, say, Blood Of the Virgins (1967), Girl Slaves Of Morgana Le Fay (1971), Nude For Satan (1973), Seven Women For Satan (1973), Vampyres (1975), or even Huntress: Spirit Of the Night (1995) more than anything else. Most of the times it looks like an early Nightwish or Immortal music video, to be entirely frank.

Not that we begrudge Perez for attempting to do these adaptations when he has access to those scenic California woodlands, as well as Castello di Amorosa in Napa Valley, and Castle Noz in San Joaquin Valley. It only speaks of ambition to attempt such a thing on the limited budgets he works on. Why attempt adapting a fairytale when a gothic horror throwback (with a gratuitous dose of blood and boobs) would have sufficed, or worked even better? Rene obviously has access to the locations, the babes, and the props/special effects to undertake such a venture. There’s no question that Rene can do much with what is obviously very little, but The Snow Queen is not that movie. Perez can, and would, do better in the years to come.