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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 eats a Magic Chocolate and transforms back into her wide-eyed, flirty, rebellious younger self (or for 5 hours at least). Suddenly Seventeen again young 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 Pervirella save Condon from the evil Queen Victoria?

After the fall of the great houses of Hammer, Amicus, and Tigon and with directors-producers as Norman J. Warren and Pete Walker moving out of the filmmaking business British exploitation – and cult cinema seemed destined for obscurity. For a while, at least, that was indeed the case… until 1997. That year two figureheads of counterculture, two masters of fringe cinema joined forces for Perverilla, a vaudevillian throwback of deliberate kitsch and cheese that, for all intents and purposes, was to be a celebration of yesteryear’s celluloid heroes of the preposterous, and the grotesque. Far from a critical – and commercial success upon original release it attained something of a rabid cult following in ensuing decades. In no small part responsible for that following was it being an early outing for two future British television personalities, the last great hurrah for ailing British - and Italian exploitation mainstay David Warbeck, and a showcase for the considerable assets of a young (and often very naked) Emily Booth.

The mad genius behind Pervirella is Josh Collins - a first class honors graduate from Central St. Martins school of Art and Design in London in 1990 - who made a name for himself in British nightlife with his underground cabaret and burlesque club The Frat Shack, RHB Exotic Entertainment as well as his bars in Melbourne and Perth. Collins and his entourage are behind the annual retro music festivals Wild Weekend Festival in the UK and Spain as well as the Las Vegas Grind in Las Vegas, Nevada. With his Zombie Zoo Productions production company Collins conceptualizes, designs, and manufactures everything from sets, costumes, and props for the various live performances of his artist collective. As an avid fan of cult cinema from the sixties to eighties Collins was bound to envision his own deviant feature and with The Perv Parlor (1995) that was indeed what happened. Helming The Perv Parlor (1995) was underground filmmaker Alex Chandon who by then had helmed micro-budget splatter epics as Chainsaw Scumfuck (1988), Bad Karma (1991), and Drillbit (1992). In short, Josh Collins is the embodiment of decadence and excess, and more or less the British equivalent to notorious boob-lovers as Jim Wynorski, Andy Sidaris, or Bill Zebub.

Pervirella was to be Collins’ most ambitious and engrossing production up to that point. A spiritual successor to his The Perv Parlor (1995) filled to the gill with oneiric fantasy images, Victorian Age period costumes, ornately designed candy-colored full-size sets, cartoony miniatures, and model animation. It was to be the scion to everything from School For Sex (1969), Zeta One (1969) and Girl Slaves Of Morgana LeFay (1971) to Flesh Gordon (1974), Marie, the Doll (1976), StarCrash (1979) and Galaxina (1980). Following in the footsteps of Luane Peters, Judy Matheson, Kirsten Lindholm, Yutte Stensgaard, Pippa Steel, and Mary and Madeleine Collinson was 21-year-old Cheshire hottie Emily Booth, a curvaceous cutie with an aversion to clothing. As Pervirella Booth was modeled after Jean-Claude Forest’s Barbarella and the Roger Vadim adaptation from 1968 where female libido is the strongest currency, as well as Modesty Blaise. Collins’ creation had a penchant for dressing in pink just as Hanna-Barbera's Penelope Pitstop from Wacky Races (1968) and there never was a situation where Pervirella couldn’t get out of by flashing her breasts or swinging her ass. Among the many guest stars are Redemption Film muses Eileen Daly, and Rebecca Eden, as well as the controversial, BAFTA award winning Jonathan Ross (BBC’s highest paid star as of 2006) and The Word and Never Mind The Buzzcocks host Mark Lamarr. Early in the production Caroline Munro was to guest star as well, but she left after a few weeks. That Pervirella was a satirical jab at the the Royal House of Windsor is an added bonus. Before America got in on the action with Superstarlet A.D. (2000), there was Pervirella.

In the realm of Condon, evil Queen Victoria (Sexton Ming) has decreed that dissidents – intelligentsia, perverts, and otherwise - are to be rounded up and summarily executed. To that end the Queen orders that a wall be built around Condon establishing her long pined after “Monarchy of Terror”. In the underground dissent and discord with the establishment are rife and soon a rebel alliance is growing in the bowels of the city. The rebels call themselves The Cult of Perv and are presided over by the Demon Nanny (Rebecca Eden). For as long as she has been their ruler the Demon Nanny and her Cult of Perv have indulged themselves in the “Sins of the Depraved”. In her death throes she gives birth to a girl (Anna McMellin) who within seconds grows into a voluptuous babe that the Pervs name Pervirella (Emily Booth, as Emily Bouffante). In Pervirella the Cult see their long prophesied savior and a fellowship is soon formed. Professor Rumphole Pump (Ron Drand), Monty (Shend, as The Shend), Sexton Ming (Anthony Waghorne), and special agent Amicus Reilly (David Warbeck) are to embark on a “Crusade Of Doom” and assist Pervirella in any way they see fit. On their zany globetrotting adventure Pervirella and her fellowship are besieged by agents of the malefic Victoria and a trio of witches. If her journey wasn’t dangerous enough Pervirella has one tiny problem: within her bountiful bosom resides a sex demon and whenever she loses her magic talisman she’s overcome by raging nymphomania and an urge to tear her clothes off; both of which she finds impossible not to indulge…

First and foremost Pervirella aimed to revitalize the British sex comedy by taking it back to its Benny Hill roots. Next to that it’s also a very lively steampunk fantastique that lovingly spoofs Eurospy conventions and that two decades prior would probably have been made in either France or Spain. It looks as if Monty Python, Peter Jackson, Renato Polselli, and Luigi Cozzi went on a bender and in their collective state of inebriation produced a screenplay that defies description. In other words, Pervirella is delightfully insane on about every level. It also happens to be Alex Chandon’s most entertaining feature by a wide margin. Here Chandon merely serves as a conduit to Collins’ vision and most, if not all, of his shortcomings are wholly absent. The candy-colored, circus sideshow, Victorian steampunk production design is a wonder to behold. It took cosplaying (a phenomenom that originally came from early 1980s Japan) and LARPing to a then-unprecendented level and we wouldn’t be surprised if much of its cult following derived from those spheres. Also not unimportant is that Pervirella at no point takes itself seriously and that its primary concern is to have fun, above all else. It’s also a good excuse to see freshfaced 21-year-old Emily Booth cavorting around in what seems like a permanent state of partial undress. Pervirella was the injection that the very British and all but extinct knickers and knockers subgenre needed. In any case, there’s an abundance of both but it never reaches Zeta One (1969) levels of camp. Pervirella even has her own swanky, sexy theme song, just like Barbarella (1968) and Galaxina (1980)!

What to say about Emily Booth (here still calling herself Bouffante) without becoming redundant? For one thing the Bouff debuted simultaneously in Hollywood as well as in British (and, by extent, European) trash cinema. Not only did she play the lead role in a vehicle with her mind, she also made a cameo in Paul W.S. Anderson’s failed sci-fi/horror hybrid Event Horizon (1997). If anything else, it goes to show that a terrible screenplay cannot be salvaged by a swathe of respectable Hollywood actors or a big budget. Event Horizon (1997) was a lot of things, but it wasn’t good by any metric you choose to employ. Laurence Fishburne, Sam Neill, and Joely Richardson couldn’t save Event Horizon (1997) – so how was the Bouff going to stand a chance? No, Ems did right by focusing her mad energies on Pervirella, which was never going to have any mainstream appeal. To her credit the Bouff was able to parlay her turn in Pervirella into a lucrative television – and modeling career. Just two years later Emily rechristened herself Booth and went on to host Bits (1999–2001), season three of outTHERE (2003), as well being a regular presenter on Eat Cinema (2006) (now My Channel), videoGaiden (2008), and the Horror Channel. In between her television gigs Ems found time to act in Alex Chandon’s Cradle Of Fear (2001) anthology and Inbred (2011), among many others. Not bad at all for a bubbly British lass never afraid to take her top off when and where it mattered.

The other big name was late New Zealand actor David Warbeck, a veteran of nearly 80 films in a career that spanned a quarter of a century, then in his twilight years. Warbeck started out in theater productions, and performed with a small touring company in New Zealand before being awarded the New Zealand Arts Council scholarship in 1965. The scholarship allowed him to attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, England which he did for four terms. Sources differ whether Warbeck quit or was expelled (he was rumoured to have had an affair with Geraldine McEwan, the wife of Academy principal Hugh Cruttwell) which led him to a modeling career wherein he figured into various print – and television commercials as well as a number of fotoromanzi with Marisa Meil. His modeling engagements quickly led to opportunities in acting and Warbeck’s first role of note was in Trog (1970), the swansong of Hollywood Golden Age leading woman Joan Crawford. From there David was whisked to Italy by spaghetti western specialist Sergio Leone for A Fistful of Dynamite (1971). He returned to England for the Hammer horror Twins Of Evil (1971) from director John Hough and with Mary and Madeleine Collinson. In 1973 he was tipped to play James Bond in Live and Let Die (1973) before producer Albert R. Broccoli vetoed up-and-coming television actor Roger Moore from the spy-action series The Saint (1962-1969) who cut his teeth for the role as suave Simon Templeman.

In the years that followed Warbeck alternated between horror and action-adventure working for directors Lucio Fulci and Antonio Marghereti on The Last Hunter (1980), The Beyond (1981), Hunters Of the Golden Cobra (1982), and The Ark Of the Sun God (1984). Before Pervirella Warbeck’s last notable effort was Rat Man (1988) with Nelson de la Rosa. Warbeck famously shared the screen with everybody from Joan Crawford, Ava Gardner, Anthony Quinn, James Coburn, Jack Palance and Peter Cushing to embattled Italian exploitation babes as Janet Ågren, Laura Trotter, Tisa Farrow, Catriona MacColl, and Cinzia Monreale. While doing Pervirella Warbeck was under investigation for running a brothel out of his restored high Victorian gothic Hampstead palazzo, a colossus built by associates of Sir George Gilbert Scott at the time of the construction of St Pancras station. It was custodian to a miniature salon theatre that witnessed performances from Gilbert and Sullivan, George Grossmith and Ellen Terry.

That Pervirella is acquired taste almost goes without saying and it definitely isn’t for everybody. It’s intentionally kitschy in every aspect and the pastel – and cotton candy production design is enoug to send anyone away screaming. Yet there’s something strangely appealing about a steampunk pastiche that closely mirrors Flesh Gordon (1974) in terms of plot but is completely its own beast otherwise. It wouldn’t be until some twenty years later that Josh Collins took to directing his second feature with the equally irreverent and satirical Fags In the Fast Lane (2017). In the two decades after Pervirella Alex Chandon went on to produce a number of music videos for British extreme metal band Cradle Of Filth which culminated in the band featuring in his proper debut Cradle Of Fear (2001). While Cradle Of Filth exploded into the mainstream (at least in metal terms) and have carved out a very… er, interesting career path for themselves Chandon remained a humble unknown. Chandon’s most recent feature is the suprisingly entertaining Inbred (2011) and the short film compilation Shortcuts to Hell: Volume 1 (2013). Perhaps it’s unfortunate that the Pervirella universe was never expanded or explored with a sequel. Or perhaps not, as Pervirella draws as much strength from not having been tainted by sequelitis. Only one question that remains: who will replace Emily Booth as Britain's n° 1 bra-busting cult babe?