Released in 1999- during the explosive and now legendary year of new Hollywood classics produced by expressive individualistic talents- Zhang Yuan's "Seventeen Years" deserves its overdue status as a masterpiece in the midst of this towering cinematic year. Essentially an observational travelogue film about a recently furloughed prisoner and the prison guard who unselfishly escorts her to her holiday destination, it eventually becomes an overpowering examination of regret and forgiveness. I dare anyone to watch the final few minutes and not get emotionally floored in the way Yuan stages a reunion scene where eyes, guarded body language and the gentle unspoken curl of lips says more about the inner workings of this family's trenchant relationship than any screenplay could ever deliver.
But before that, Yuan establishes a cadre of characters in a family during 1980's China, stepping back in time seventeen years. Now on his second marriage, Yun (Liang Song) is barely able to keep his household together. His wife and her daughter Yu (Liu Lin) seem to provoke and taunt his daughter Tao (Li Jun) at every turn. When the issue of missing money comes up one morning, the two stepsisters (urged and inflamed by both parents) argue before leaving for school. On the way there, something happens that sends young Tao to prison for the aforementioned time span.
The tragedy of how Tao got there takes up only a fraction of the film's swift but effective run-time. "Seventeen Years" resumes those years later when Tao is released from prison for the duration of a Chinese New Year holiday. Also traveling from the prison is guard Chen (the wonderful Li Bingbing in an early role). Initially helping Tao find the right bus route and then realizing her indifference to actually getting anywhere at all, Chen decides to help her find her way home.
It's in this quiet relationship between Chen and Tao that "Seventeen Years" shines. Not much is said between them, but the moments they encounter together, such as Yuan's sly comment on China's destructive march of progress when Tao discovers her family's home has been demolished for years for urban renewal, echo the nostalgic sentiments proposed in so many of fellow countryman Jia Zhangke's films.
By also presenting two women as the protagonists in an era where Chinese films mainly treated them as simple matriarchs of a family through the passage of time or second wheels to the more dominant men in their lives, "Seventeen Years" stands out as something special for treating their problems....their worldview.... their sympathies for one another as equally haunting and monumental as that of male figures during the time. It's in the quiet, reserved performances of Jun and Bingbing that "Seventeen Years" really surges, however. The way they silently eat together or walk with hunched shoulders.... and especially the dignified reaction and slow turn Bingbing gives during the final scene when she realizes the magnitude of her unselfish mission with Tao... the two actresses seem to "existing" more than acting. It's a wonder to behold.
Though not an art house/household name, filmmaker Zuan (who did gain some acclaim a few years prior with his "East Palace West Palace") has carried on making films for the past two decades, but none with the exposure or impact of his 90's work. It's a shame. I desperately want to to see more of it. If the sensitivity and acute purpose of realizing the harsh truth of real forgiveness as exhibited in this film is present even remotely in his other work, than we have a talent who's sorely underappreciated. "Seventeen Years" reveals that time doesn't always heal all wounds, but the simple act of facing up to them can help dull the pain.