One wonders how this film would turn out should it not be censored to a certain degree, given that films about juvenile delinquency got the general frown from the Chinese censors, to avoid glamourizing non-socially accepted behaviour about disaffected youths and their open sexuality. Based on the novel Blade vs Blade by He Dacao, this film is reported toned down in its adaptation, and the narrative is compellingly telling of this shortcoming.
Directed by Lu Yue, who was cinematographer on a number of Zhang Yimou movies, Thirteen Princess Trees is the name of a fictional school where the story of a group of teenagers unfolds. Think of it like Volcano High, or any other made-up schools in films such as that in Crows Zero with delinquent youths dominating the landscape, minus the fantastical fight sequences of course. Premise-wise, it could even be like Singapore's very own The Days, but the film opens with a tense hostage situation, before flashing back in timeline.
We have Feng (Liu Xin) the tomboy with a penchant for knives, and the story takes on her point of view as the central character caught up in the thick of the action. Amongst those in her clique are A-Li (Chen Keliang), a rich kid under the wing of protection by gang leader Taotao (Duan Bowen), whom Feng is infatuated with, being on the receiving end of mixed signals, putting their relationship on and off in wash-rinse-repeat sequence. Things take a change when new student Bao (Zhao Mengqiao) joins their class, and takes an instant liking for the spunky Feng.
It's an examination of the love triangle between the parties involved, and you can probably identify with the aloofness of cool kid Taotao, the pining for the unattainable from Feng's confused state when she rejects Taotao's advances, and also from the advances of the very direct Bao, who tries really hard with in his incessant pursuit to obtain her approval of acceptance. As to who wins in this battle of hearts, that's actually not as important as the more interesting angle of having some power play when Taotao gets hooked up with the new form teacher.
As mentioned, here's where the censorship comes into play. While we do not see any shenanigans performed on screen by that of the forbidden relationship between teacher and student, Lu Yue managed to get around this through elements of suggestion, and the fine acting by the cast in telling a lot more that's going behind the scenes, than what can actually be shown. The power of suggestion here broke through, and just a single ogle, a glance, or a twitch of an eye, could reinforce plenty.
Naturally it would be much more oblique should things be told in a more verbatim fashion, but I guess this would challenge filmmakers to be more creative and innovative in putting their narrative forward. There are certain points in time though that you'd feel some pathos were probably left hanging, or not thoroughly explored because doing so would mean to irk the censor board perhaps.
Unlike The Days, there is a relatively stronger presence and existence of authority, but not always in positive light. We see the form teacher and her uneasy ability to assert her instructions on the students without resorting to or condoning violence, and a somewhat corruption of her moral authority with the canoodling with the rogue of the classroom for some r-e-s-p-e-c-t. Feng's father (Shang Hui) is a policeman who while on one hand is top notch at his job, but is somewhat of a failure in the bringing up of his daughter, again with the use of fists. Perhaps it's a not so subtle veil on how authoritarian figures are not as well received, especially when hands are raised, and no effort got spared for some condemnation.
Winner of the Special Jury Prize at the 19th Tokyo International Film Festival, Thirteen Princess Trees still has plenty to offer despite going back to the drawing board and toning down scenes, resulting at times to obvious narrative breakage. The use of actors not well known also helped to provide an edge to characterization, and I guess the soundtrack was also quite peculiar with the repetitive playing of "Nan Er Dang Zhi Qiang" and "Xiao Ao Jiang Hu" over the school's PA speakers, akin to alluding that it's quite the cowboy town within the fictional school grounds.
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