Suddenly Seventeen (28 Suì Wèi Chéngnián)

China (2016) Dir. Zhang Mo

There was a lot of pressure riding on this debut film that some people may not be aware of. More than just having to impress cinemagoers as well as the studio and producers there is the small matter of living up to the family name – because newbie Zhang Mo calls legendary director Zhang Yimou “father”.

Perhaps wisely or maybe by design, Mo avoids the same style her father is known for, instead going for mainstream approval with this adaptation of an internet novel by the curiously named black.f. 28 year-old Liang Xia (Ni Ni) has been with her company executive boyfriend Mao Liang (Huo Jianhua) for ten years, having given up her dream of becoming a painter to support his career.

However, Liang is becoming impatient waiting for Mao to propose and at the wedding of Liang’s best friend Bai Xiaoning (Ma Su), Mao publicly declines to propose once again. Driving off in a huff, Liang hits another car and whilst in shock she eats a chocolate from the box she was given earlier by a strange man. Suddenly Liang finds herself mentally transported back to when she was seventeen yet her body is still 28.

Body swap comedies are not new yet they still seem to be fertile ground for storytellers despite this. Over the past decade alone we’ve had the likes of 13 Going On 30, 17 Again and Miss Granny whilst older film fans will recall classics such as Big, Freaky Friday and Vice Versa. The caveat for the filmmaker is to create something new, especially the humour which writes itself but using the same broad brush as before.

Zhang Mo’s script is rather packed and uneven since it tries to balance comedy, romantic drama and drippings of social commentary. It may not be apparent right away for non-Chinese viewers but one of the many oppressive social stigmas women are judge by is being single after the age of 25, where they are considered a “Leftover woman” and doomed to be single for all eternity.

This attitude clearly won’t wash here in the west and with Mo having studied in the US, perhaps this was her chance to reflect this with her compatriots. But it doesn’t stand out as a major plot point, quietly slipped into the script as part of the “live life for yourself” it Mo is much happier to promote.

Whilst stuck in traffic a man (Mike Kai Sui) from the Forever Lasting Youth & Happiness Company gives Liang his magical chocolates, which she takes but forgets about until the car accident. The twist here is that 17 year-old Liang – known henceforth as Little Liang – is a fish out of water time wise without actually going anywhere, making her more of an alter ego to Big Liang.

Early jokes include Little Liang not recognising iPhones or iPads as well as her older versions wardrobe. Similarly she is not happy with Mao for not marrying her and this feistier Liang is not afraid to give Mao his marching orders. Whilst in junior mode Liang spies a young lad on the train Yan Yan (Darren Wang) and sketches him, dashing off when she returns to her old self.

Yan takes to the internet to find Little Liang, going viral and catching the attention of Mr. Gao (Binlong Pan), a client of Mao’s design company. Because Mao recognises Laing’s photo Gao insist that she designs his product or no deal, forcing Mao to go crawling back to Liang. But there is a problem – only Little Laing can draw; Big Laing lost the skill through years of inactivity and she’d rather fool around with Yan.

If there wasn’t enough story already the duality aspect takes a confusing turn as both Liang’s leave messages for each other via mobile phone – a nice gimmick but ill conceived. Also the effect of the magic chocolates only lasts for five hours a time, leading to plenty of inopportune moments of overlap when one Laing is in the other’s timeline.

Running for 107-minutes Mo seems to find it hard to juggle the various sub-plots and extraneous elements sufficiently, forgoing those that have the potential to enrich the story in favour of those that allow Mo to indulge in visual excess and cutesy comedy. There is room for both but Mo succumbs to these distractions, obscuring the focused and preferable directions it could have followed, and the film drags as a result.

Not helping is the choppy editing, which is technically fine but narrative wise sees things jump around too frequently, a problem exacerbated by explanations arriving long after the event – such as Little Liang’s shorter hair actually being a wig. Similarly the men, who are the catalyst for so much of Laing’s actions flit in and out of the story on a whim, denying them any real development.

And the chocolates are finite in their supply yet Liang switches between personalities on a regular basis to suit the situation yet not once does she question how they work, why and where they come from! Liang only relies on Bai’s home experiments on the chocolate for her info, which again is not made clear how Bai discerned this either.

Mo has inherited her father’s eye for visual flair as the lush cinematography attests, but also utilises green screen and CGI to bring her ideas to life. The cast are also game in letting themselves be put in silly situations, but it befalls to Ni Ni to carry the load. She marks the shift between personalities with overt physical differences since the body is still 28, deftly capturing the conflicting attitudes of the two ages, displaying promising comic talent.

A much tighter script with more focus on the salient facets of the story is the prime issue with Suddenly Seventeen, otherwise Zhang Mo’s debut is a competently made, earnest and enjoyable enough piece of fluff. The only way now for Mo is up.