Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Thirteen with Ling Yun

A weird mix of silly teenage nonsense and heartfelt coming-of-age bits, 1974's Thirteen is still a pretty enjoyable Shaw Brothers film.

Tien Niu, Tanny Tien Ni's sister and Alex Man's wife (for four years), stars as Ji Bai, the 13-year-old -- the actress was 15 when this was filmed -- of the title. In her big family, she's the awkward kid, hardly competing with older sister Jin Bai (Irene Chen) in the boy department. Mom Ha Ping -- from 1970's Apartment for Ladies -- doesn't seem to notice the girl, and the father -- Chin Han -- is a bit estranged from the family and with a younger girlfriend.

Irene Chen is not as cute in this film as in those Shaw musicals...

Enter Ling Yun as Shin Jiao, a family friend -- or an uncle? I was never quite sure -- who immediately captivates the young girl with his kindness. And I'm sure his movie star good looks help captivate as well.

Even as Ji Bai finds herself getting attracted to the older journalist, she's being romanced by schoolmate Wang Yu who takes her to -- what else? -- a kung fu movie.

[Spoilers Begin]

Okay, so as the film progresses, Ji Bai is a bit older -- maybe 15 or 16? -- and it's a 16-year-old actress playing the role. Ji Bai loses her virginity -- against her will -- to Wang Yu in what amounts to a date rape scene. Not only that, but there's a nude scene. Okay, it's clearly a body double but why was it necessary? I am hardly a prude but I really don't think a gratuitous nude scene of a 16-year-old character -- in a rape scene! -- really adds anything to the plot.

And the lingering nude shots are shoehorned in. The whole scene felt distasteful and very male-oriented, as if to say that the date rape was a normal part of growing up for a girl in the 1970s.

Not long after that and Ji Bai starts feeling sick when seeing her dad on his hospital bed. You can guess what's coming next, can't you?

She's pregnant but conveniently falls down the steps and miscarries before she can spend kindly Ling Yun's money on an abortion.

Oh, and her father dies!

[Spoilers End]

This was a film that had a lot of potential. Tien Niu is a natural performer and Ling Yun is a bit stodgy in this but he looks great. But Thirteen is a mess; not quite realistic enough to be an accurate picture of teenage life in 1974 Hong Kong, nor salacious enough all around to be an exploitative guilty pleasure, and hardly romantic enough to appeal to teenage girls with schoolgirl crushes on Ling Yun, I don't know who this was meant to appeal to in 1974.

Not a total failure thanks to lead Tien Niu's natural appeal, Thirteen still has its moments of interest for fans of 1970s Hong Kong cinema.

You can order Thirteen on DVD here.