Director: Zhang Mo
Cast: Wang Da-lu, Wallace Huo, Ni Ni, Su Ma
Runtime: 1 hr 47 mins
Released By: Shaw
Opening Day: 8 December 2016
Synopsis: A 28-year-old heroine (Ni Ni) is successful at work but has an unhappy marriage with her husband, Mao Liang (Wallace Huo). One day after swallowing a piece of chocolate, she miraculously transformed into her 17-year-old self, before she met her husband. This strange occurrence becomes an opportunity for them to fall in love again from scratch…
Everyone leaves a part of themselves in the past – the question really is how much. That’s the reason many self-help columns and books begin by asking what your older self would say to your younger self if the two met and vice versa. ‘Suddenly Seventeen’ – the directorial debut of Zhang Mo (or better known as the daughter of acclaimed filmmaker Zhang Yimou) based on the novel of the same name by Black.F – explores this theme with magical realism, in which the 28-year-old Liang Xia (Ni Ni) transforms into her ambitious if rebellious teenage 17-year-old self (also played by Ni Ni) by consuming an enchanted piece of chocolate. Each one however lasts only five hours, and what Liang Xia’s younger self does during those five hours is unfortunately not known to her older self. The latter not only necessitates that her two selves communicate via video messages recorded on her phone, but also serves as a running joke in which her two distinct selves set out to prank each other by setting up the latter in embarrassing or awkward situations.
And so the younger Liang Xia will come to discover that her older self is trapped in an unhappy relationship with Mao Liang (Wallace Huo), her boyfriend of ten years who is now more interested in his career than about marriage or her for that matter. So desperate was the older Liang Xia to save the relationship that she had taken the extraordinary step at her best friend’s (Ma Su) wedding to propose to Mao Liang, and when the latter turned out surprised but unmoved, Liang Xia decides to walk out of their relationship altogether. By chance, her younger self lets loose her innate talent for art during one of the initial switcheroos, triggering an ironic turn of events where Mao Liang is forced by his boss to engage her as their company designer in order to make their cosmetics line look hip and appealing to a whole young generation of Chinese consumers. Yet the older Liang Xia has over the course of the last few years all but abandoned her love for painting, such that she no longer feels creatively inspired or competent to draw anymore.
Thus sets up a quid-pro-quo between Liang Xia’s older and younger self – in return for drawing on their behalf, Liang Xia’s older self will let her sassy younger self date the dashing but roguish Yan (Darren Wang Dalu), who spends his days hanging out with a gang of friends on their motorbikes living life day by day as it comes. Things of course don’t go too well at the start; not only is Yan utterly bewildered by Liang Xia’s change in attitude when the five-hour countdown is up, but Liang Xia’s older self has to contend with her younger self trying to hijack their body-switching in order that the latter can get to spend more time with Yan. That tussle for control forms the basis for a number of hilarious comic misadventures – one has the older Liang Xia purposely setting up a date for her younger self with Yan at a ‘fiery wings’ eating competition, leading the latter scrambling to a filthy loo shortly after to relieve herself; and another has Liang Xia’s younger self spiking a drink meant for her older self, such that the former takes over in the middle of a ‘friendly’ tennis match with Mao’s boss and ends up trashing him during the game.
Thanks to Ni Ni’s impeccable comic timing, the first half of the movie pops with sheer verve and wit. As good-looking as Huo and Wang may be, the show belongs unequivocally to Ni Ni who is just at ease playing a disillusioned young adult her age as she is a precocious teenager slightly more than half her age. Ni Ni’s versatility as an actress is even more prominent in the latter half, which sheds the earlier whimsical tone for a more contemplative one that sees the older Liang Xia re-discover her sense of self-worth and the younger Liang Xia come to terms with the inevitable heartbreak of puppy love. Neither coming-of-age story is original, but Ni Ni’s committed performance keeps you emotionally invested in both personas, even as we expect that one of them will eventually have to go. More than cheering for Liang Xia to be with either guy, it is a testament to Ni Ni’s vivid acting that we end up rooting for her character to simply find happiness in life once again, with or without a romantic partner by her side.
It may be Zhang Mo’s first time behind the camera, but you won’t feel so while watching her confident debut. At no point does she turn comedy into caricature or drama into melodrama; instead, she shows sensitivity, warmth and sincerity portraying Liang Xia’s grown-up or teenage woes. Not often do we compliment the use of music in a movie, but Mo’s choice of songs to complement the mood of her movie is impeccable. As fantastic as the premise may be, ‘Suddenly Seventeen’ is a sweet and poignant depiction of the advice of them self-help books or columns are likely to give about never losing sight – despite the passage of time and the advancement of age – of who you are, what you love and where you want your life to go. Whether you’re 17 or 28, it is never too early or late to ponder and keep in mind that message of self-actualisation – and in that same way, ‘Suddenly Seventeen’ is just as deeply resonant no matter your age.
(Witty, whimsical and warm, this magical fantasy that realises the hypothetical of our younger self meeting our older self is filled with both laughs and meaning)
Review by Gabriel Chong