It's slow, it happens on a small scale, it's layered like lacquer, and at the center of it is a story that has happened everywhere in the world. But "When Ruoma Was Seventeen" takes this story -- the coming of age and first disillusionment of a young girl -- and sets it among the silvery terraced rice paddies of Yunnan (which, based on this film, has to be one of the most picturesque places on earth) and inside the heart of a simple and ravishingly beautiful 17-year-old member of the Hani Tribe, one of Southern China's many ethnic groups.
Most of the story actually takes place in Ruoma's face. The young woman who plays her is incapable of a false note. She is guileless and transparent, living with her grandmother and working in the local village selling grilled corn on the cob. Into her life comes a wanna-be photographer from the big city, a nice enough guy who wants to prove to himself that he's an artist. Hard up for money, and seeing how many foreigners want to take Ruoma's picture, he sets up a business charging tourists to pose with her. He keeps most of the money, but the bits he gives her are more than she's ever seen before. Slowly, she begins to fall in love with him.
They couldn't be more different. He's a city-dweller, a person who has made the compromises modern life seems to require. She's a girl who has probably never told a lie in her life and who doesn't even have the guile to try to hide her growing love. By now I'm sure everyone has guessed the ending, but it doesn't matter: this is a film about spirit, not story. Nothing big happens but what happens is shattering. And yet there's also recovery and resilience, and always beauty, beauty, beauty. I saw this film four days ago and I've thought about a hundred times since then. See it for yourself.
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