20 Once Again (2014)
Editor’s Note: 20 Once Again opens in US and Canada on January 16th.
Grandmothers in film are rare. To have them as protagonists is even more so. This fact is to 20 Once Again’s credit. A remake of 2014 Korean family comedy, Miss Mammy, it wishes to challenge perceptions of the older generation, to reveal to us that they still can offer much to society, and to make sure that the audience has a rollicking good time. It does this with middling results.
A remake of 2014 Korean family comedy, Miss Mammy, it wishes to challenge perceptions of the older generation, to reveal to us that they still can offer much to society …
The film weakens it’s own stance, through the central magical conceit; tyrannical, vivacious and self pitying matriarch Shen Meng Jun gets another chance to live her twenties through an encounter with a photography studio which restores her to her height of beauty, her 20s. This immediatly games everyone pay attention to her, and find her to be a charming person with a new way to look at the world. What follows is a series of formulaic high-jinks as she navigates modern China, discovers romances, and joins a band: something she always wanted to do but never could. Unfortunately to 20 Once Again’s detriment, what starts as a potentially interesting spin on a tired premise becomes tiring itself.
The structure of the film is also problematic, and emblematic of a compromise to appeal to the wides Chinese audience possible. The plot drags, and the tone frequently backflips, unsure of which of the numerous threads to follow, Shen Meng Jun’s romances, the slapstick, or the forced drama around her grandson’s band’s rise to fame, played by actual Chinese star Luhan.
Much of the comedy comes from Shen Meng Jun’s older mannerism when combined with her youthful appearances; she now lacks the authority which she appealed to to solve conflicts and get her way. This leads to a number of decent fish-out-of-water scenarios, but in a film that runs about 30 minutes too long, they tire the viewer. The film cannot bring all of these threads together in a satisfying way. There’s a good movie inside 20 Once Again, however it is trapped behind a wall of contrived narrative. Technically, the film is shot in an extremely pleasing colour palette and gentle wide framing that gives the actors space to play off of each other. The issue is that the film feels like a compromise here, between some nobler aesthetical intentions and comedy; the music is often too loud and jarring for the sake of one-off gags that don’t build or add to the narrative.
Credit must be given where credit is due, and the actors are all wonderful. Brilliantly directed, and entranced in every moment …
Credit must be given where credit is due, and the actors are all wonderful. Brilliantly directed, and entranced in every moment; they do a lot of the heavy lifting that the script asks of them without the audience noticing the clumsy beats they are retreading. The family play off each other, finding nuance and humor in their trope-inspired moulds, Yang Zishan completely embodies the duality of her character, being youthful and wisened all at once, and special mention must be made of Wang Deshun, who has the most emotionally complicated role of the film, as the family friend-butler who suffers from an unrequited crush for Shen Meng Jun, the scenes where he thinks the original Shen Meng Jun has been kidnapped are heartbreaking. Good actors will carry you through an entire film, even despite a few small technical issues- audio mixing was occasionally distracting with background noise coming and going without compression, but they were survivable.
As such, 20 Once Again is flawed, but extremely charming. A film caught between two masters. The lovely opening montage/continuous shot hybrid of how Sen Meng Jun conceptualizes her son’s life, feels like the opening to another the film, we can sense that Shen Meng Jun is the film itself; unable to express itself unless portrayed in the most accessible way possible. The older generation have a lot to offer narratives with their own unique set of difficulties and solutions to living life. 20 Once Again nearly manages to plumb these depths through the force of nature of the cast breathing life into a script that isn’t quite there.
20 Once Again is extremely watchable, with a likeable, energetic cast. However, it drags when it could provoke thought, and the viewer can feel the wasted potential.