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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.