Zhang Yimou’s daughter explores China’s expectations of its women in directorial debut
Zhang Mo’s romantic fantasy film inspired by differing Chinese and Western views on marriage
Differing Chinese and Western expectations over marriage provided the inspiration for Zhang Mo’s directorial debut, Suddenly Seventeen, which she says is about encouraging young women to “explore a little further” before they settle down.
The daughter of Chinese cinematic great Zhang Yimou, Zhang Mo said returning to China after years of study in the United States felt like “a reverse culture shock”. Then 26 and viewing a life full of possibilities, Zhang was startled that people thought she should already be married and planning a family.
“Women in the West, by the age of 28 ... they still feel like they’re still young, they still want to pursue their career maybe, and (find) out who they are, but in China it’s almost like the opposite,” said Zhang, now 33 and married to an American who works for the Hollywood agency representing her.
Set for release next month, Suddenly Seventeen is based on a novel published on the internet. It’s part of a hugely popular genre among young Chinese that focuses mainly on fantasy and romance tales and has spawned movies and web series.
In Zhang’s film, the 28-year-old protagonist, Liang Xia, played by Ni Ni, is unhappy in love and eats a magical chocolate that wipes her memory and turns her back into a 17-year-old. Zhang said she seized on the short novel’s premise and characters but, rather than keeping Liang at 17, her heroine flips back and forth in age every five hours, creating conflict and drama.
After moving to the US at 15, Zhang studied architecture at university but felt stifled by an internship in a New York firm. “Everyone was in a box ... because they don’t want to steal each other’s ideas,” she said. “For me, I still want to connect with people, I still want to express emotions, so I decided maybe architecture wasn’t the best choice for me.”
After studying filmmaking at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, she returned to China to work as an editor on four of her father’s films, including The Flowers of War starring Christian Bale.
“It’s really a privilege, because editing’s really the best way to learn how to become a director,” Zhang said. “Whatever he shot I saw, and I made that into a story, and so through that process you really learn how to cut the movie, how to tell the story, or even how to shoot the film to make it great.”
Emerging as part of the Chinese post-Cultural Revolution avant-garde, Zhang Yimou gained international acclaim in the 1980s for art films such as Red Sorghum before turning to more commercial fare. His first English-language movie, The Great Wall starring Matt Damon, comes out next year.
Being the offspring of a famous director isn’t always an advantage, Zhang Mo said.
“People immediately (think) you must have way more resources, and you can have way more shortcuts, but actually it’s not true. If anything, it’s the opposite because the family aspect casts such a big shadow, you have to be extra creative, or working extra hard, to gain the audience’s approval.”
Despite basing her directorial debut on an internet novel, Zhang said that movie genre might have already peaked, with audiences now looking for fresher and more personal stories rather than something that had amassed a huge online fan base.
“I think original content right now is the key for the future of Chinese filmmaking, to tout original stories, not something (remade), not some internet novel,” she said.
Suddenly Seventeen, whose Chinese title translates as “28-year-old Minor,” will be widely released in China and given a limited release in cinemas in the US, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand on Friday. It will be released later in the month in South Korea, Thailand and other Asian countries.