Director: Jingni Luo
Writer: Jingni Luo
Cast: Xie Hanyue, Luo Yutian, Tian Li, Wang Li, Tian Chenxuan
Running time: 21mins
The typical coming-of-age drama will focus on a child or teenager’s transition into young adulthood – facing formative new experiences such as love and loss, which they have previously not encountered. Sometimes humorous, sometimes tragic, this usually builds toward a quintessentially bittersweet ending.
Things are tinged with melancholia because our protagonist is going through a loss of innocence: part of that early spark we all enjoyed as youngsters is fading away, because they have finally endured a portion of the sadness that the world has in store for them. At the same time, the conclusion of films like Submarine, Stand by Me, Song of the Sea or Dead Poet’s Society also comes with an uplifting and hopeful feeling, because this experience has helped its lead characters define who they are or will become and perhaps prepared them better to cope with that sadness.
Eighteen unquestionably lives up to one half of the bargain – delivering an ending as bitter as blackstrap molasses. Whether Jingni Luo’s script manages to balance that bitterness adequately is another matter.
Bai Lu (Xie Hanyue) is on the cusp of adulthood. With her 18th birthday on the horizon, she feels that a kind of independence she has craved for years is finally within reach.
Bai Lu finds herself falling between the cracks at home. Her tyrannical father (Tian Li) showering her brother (Tian Chenxuan) in affection for the slightest anecdotal achievement (for example, “My teacher praised me in class today”) while forbidding her to study art. Meanwhile, Bai Lu’s mother (Wang Li) is pushing for a divorce, after years of suffering in silence – but her energies are therefore mostly focused on her own emancipation.
To escape from this toxic atmosphere, Bai Lu frequents the local aquarium with her best friend Cheng Xue (Luo Yutian). Director of Photography Wu Linhong frames these encounters beautifully – in particular, one shot where the pair gaze up at the shimmering fish darting through the azure tanks and speak about Bai Lu’s aspirations. At home, Bai Lu also keeps a single fish in a tiny bowl, which she stares at pensively while recording those same thoughts in the sketches and notes of her diary.
As is the case in Werner Herzog’s reworking of Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, the beauty and peace of fish, and the light dancing on the water above them, sees them become the living embodiment of our protagonist’s hopes and dreams. It is in this carefree setting Cheng Xue first broaches the idea that Bai Lu might win her desired independence by rebelling and enrolling in art classes – whether or not she has approval from her parents.
Soon after, Bai Lu begins sneaking into an art class with Cheng Xue at her school. But she finds more than just a venue to express herself. She also finds an adult who takes an interest in what she has to say – and quickly finds she has a crush developing on the art teacher. She is not the only one, though, and suddenly an unspoken tension forms between Bai Lu and Cheng Xue.
The situation comes to a head when Bai Lu’s father reveals he has been reading her diary. He slaps her, before forcibly cutting her hair as punishment. Most of this occurs offscreen, making for a sequence which avoids becoming gratuitous in its cruelty but still makes clear the kind of trauma being inflicted. Meanwhile, on top of the brutality he inflicts upon her at home, her father also reports his findings to the school – which sees her teacher handed his marching orders.
This sets in motion a series of events which see Bai Lu’s young life turned upside down. By the end of it, she has won some much-needed distance from her monstrous father – shown by her determined re-styling of the haircut he had given her – and found ways to define herself. However, she also finds herself sitting alone on a dock she and Cheng Xue used to frequent, blowing out the candles on a forlorn looking cake. Through her rebellion, she has achieved independence, but at a cost. Her most treasured relationships have been shattered, and the fate of her fish suggests that something of her had died in the process.
That brings me back to whether Eighteen manages to balance bitter with sweet. It will undoubtedly raise some eyebrows that Bai Lu almost seems to have been punished for seeking to win her freedom and determine her own future. For me, however, the final shots of this film are a masterful indicator that while her innocence and her old aspirations might have passed into the ether, there is still hope. As she stands in that same gorgeous framing from the start of the film, staring up into the seemingly endless blue of the tank, she may have lost parts of her life, and herself, but as she stares up at the fish, she still has time to form new dreams. And as she wanders off, down a luminous blue corridor with abundant life swimming above her head, she has the strength to build them for herself.
With the support of a phenomenal cast – in particular Xie Hanyue, who gives a masterclass in subtle emotion as the dreamy-eyed, distraught and determined Bai Lu – Jingni Luo has achieved a near-perfect balancing act with Eighteen. This is a haunting portrait of a young life in turmoil, but still finding room for hope – as bitter as can be, but with enough sweetness for glints of light to penetrate even the darkest molasses.