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When Ruo Ma was Seventeen

This sweet screen-capture-1coming of age story is almost worth seeing just for the scenery alone. Shot in southern China’s Yunnan province, When Ruo Ma was Seventeen uses the beautiful landscape of terraced paddy fields as a reminder that we are not in any place we know. It is far removed from our world. But Ruo Ma has lived here all her life with her old grandma, working these terraced fields with her fellow Hani (aka Xiani.) Now 17, she goes to town to make some money selling roasted corn on the street.

Tourists flock to this quaint town to see the famous terraces and to gawk at the local minority people, the Hani. As Ruo Ma sells her corn in the town, tourists notice her exotic beauty and pose with her for photos. At first she is embarrassed. But when a young photographer who is living in the town gets her to smile for them, young Ruo Ma gets her first crush. The photographer has come to the town to work on his own budding career. Early on we see he is not doing so well; the landlord is hounding him to pay the rent and all he can say is, my girlfriend will pay when she gets here. In the meantime, he talks Ruo Ma into posing for tourists for money with him getting a cut. Ruo Ma is enchanted by this big-city stranger and fascinated by the idea of getting to go to the city and ride on an elevator. But the girlfriend does show up and briefly gets in the way of Ruo Ma’s friendship trying to talk the photographer into coming back to the city with her. Eventually, she leaves and Ruo Ma’s flirtation builds.

There is a sweet scene where the photographer comes to her house out in the country and the two of them run along the tops of the terraces until he falls into the water and they have a water fight. When the landlord finally lays down the law and the photographer decides to throw in the towel and return to the city, Ruo Ma makes plans to go with him.

Li Min as Ruo Ma is just lovely. She is not classically beautiful, but her smile lights up the screen and her reactions to the world are so true. When the photographer gives her a Walkman to listen to music, you would think she’d gone to heaven. This is a sweet story beautifully filmed. Grill some corn and rent it. Released in 2002.

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