“Thirteen Princess Trees” is a film with a sadly chequered release history, having run into trouble with the notorious Chinese censors. Based upon a book by university professor He Dacao, and directed by Lu Yue (a noted cinematographer who was nominated for an Academy Award for his work on Zhang Yimou’s “Shanghai Triad” and who previously directed the Shu Qi starring “The Foilage”) it caused controversy for its open, even handed depiction of teenage delinquency and for portraying the education system in a less than savoury light, and suffered some fairly extensive edits and delays as a result. Despite this, the film has managed to win some acclaim on its eventual release, winning the Special Jury Prize at the 2007 Tokyo Film Festival.
Originally titled “Blade vs. Blade” (which was the name of the book, considered too violent sounding for the film), the film follows the complicated lives of a group of high school students. The main character is Feng (Liu Xin), a spiky, knife-obsessed haired tomboy who is kind of dating Taotao (Duan Bown) and who has problems with her violent father who has a nasty tendency to beat her black and blue. Taotao on the other hand appears to like the one-legged bookworm Eva (Luo Yadan), whilst Feng’s friend Jojo (Wang Jing) seems to have an inappropriate crush on her. Things get even more complicated with the arrival of Bao (Zhao Mengqiao), a rough, tough older guy from Beijing who starts bullying class rich kid Ali (Chen Keliang), and who somehow manages to attract the attentions of Feng. The delicate social structure soon starts to crumble, resulting in trouble and disillusionment for all concerned.
To get the bad out of the way first, it’s fair to say that the cuts made to “Thirteen Princess Trees” have certainly robbed the film of some of its intended impact. Although it’s unlikely that the film ever featured anything graphic, the editing out of much of the content regarding a pupil-teacher affair, hints of sexual abuse, homosexuality, and indeed sex in general have to an extent left it rather limp. Making things worse is the fact that many of the cuts have been made without too much thought or skill, leaving certain aspects of the film as confusing. Whilst there is something to be said for subtlety or even for merely hinting at controversial themes, here the viewer is frequently left wondering what has happened. To be fair, there is still a reasonable amount of teenage rebellion and drama left on show, though nothing more controversial than the sneaking into of bars and skipping exams – although the hints are certainly there at something darker lurking beneath the surface, and this in its own way is reasonably effective.
It has to be said that the decision to excise footage from the film does not really make a great deal of sense, since director Lu is in no way supporting any of the indiscretions, and indeed clearly illustrates the fact that delinquent behaviour only leads to trouble. Similarly, the education system is not in itself attacked, with problems being the result of bad teachers themselves (in particular Mrs. Song, the class teacher who encourages her pupils by saying they can be just like Forrest Gump if they try hard enough).
The film still manages to hold the interest, mainly through the fact that it makes for a convincing portrait of troubled youth. The awkward character relationships, especially that between Feng and Bao, are believable and oddly touching, and Lu certainly manages to capture the emotional angst of growing up. Although more of an effort could perhaps have been made to explore the minds of the characters, they are an interesting, unconventional bunch, none of whom are obviously sympathetic or indeed likeable. As such, the film works well as an observational piece, underscored nicely by the rough, low budget digital look which gives a vaguely documentary type feel whilst still managing to work in some nice shots and cinematography, as might be expected given the director’s background.
Certainly, it’s a shame that “Princess Thirteen Trees” will likely never be seen in its intended form, though what remains is potent enough and does offer an interesting look at the difficulties high school life. Well directed and naturalistic, it never offers any easy answers or forced conclusions, and should appeal to viewers who enjoy social criticism cinema.
Yue Lu (director) / Dacao He (novel), Ying Liu, Yue Lu (screenplay)
CAST: Xin Liu … He Feng
Mengqiao Zhao, Wenbo Duan, Jianyong Chen, Keliang Chen, Yulou Gou, Yadan Luo