Maven's Nest

Reel Life: Flick Pix

The Chinese Rust Belt comes alive with the sound of music

By Nora Lee Mandel


Written and Directed by Zhang Meng
Produced by Gwang-Suk and Kwak Jae-Yong
Released by Film Movement
China. 105 min. Not Rated in U.S.
In Mandarin with English subtitles
With: Wang Qian-Yuan, Qin Hai-Lu, Jang Shin-Yeong, Liu Qian, Luo Er-Yang, Tian-Yu & Guo Yong-Zhen

This Rust Belt landscape is full of deserted factories, obsolete smokestacks, empty markets, and decaying apartments. An American Midwestern city? A Yorkshire, U.K. industrial wasteland? A Russian dirge is sung so it could be the remnants of East Germany. But it’s northeastern China in the 1990’s when hulking state enterprises were abandoned for modern plants in the south. The economic changes have hit the couple who face the camera because they can’t even look at each other anymore. The smartly dressed wife Xiao Ju (Jang Shin-Yeong) wants a divorce. Her chain-smoking husband Chen Guilin (Wang Qian-Yuan) is willing to let her marry her successful quack medicine-selling boyfriend, but her terms are too dear: she wants custody of their young daughter Xiao Yujan. He insists the girl is perfectly happy living with him.

Guilin figures he can keep her happy because he’s the scrappy accordion player in a band of street musicians who can magically turn the most depressing scene into a party, at least in their imaginations. He has certainly convinced the pretty lead singer Shu Xian (Qin Hailu), who seductively invites him home. But his wandering father is getting Alzheimer’s and his unemployed brother gets banned from the neighborhood mah jongg game for cheating. The camera frequently tracks slowly back and forth, just the way their lives are stuck in a rut, like the freight trains that rumble through town leaving them behind from progress. The local political controversy is what to do with the huge chimneys that dominate the fading skyline – maybe they could become a novelty tourist attraction, if the government doesn’t just blow them up.

Guilin’s hope for the future is his daughter playing the piano and he’s determined to encourage her musical talents. Together they can hear beautiful music when she plays, but the neighbors just hear banging late at night. With a bust of deaf Beethoven as a model, he tries to convince her that she can keep practicing on the painted cardboard keyboard he constructs, but she loses patience with a silent piano. When he even fails at stealing a piano from her school, he loses custody and starts losing heart. But his quixotic dream inspires his band and his friends. Couldn’t they make their own piano? In an old factory decorated with fraying Karl Marx posters, they find an old Russian primer on piano manufacturing, and set off to build one. As much a celebration of workmanship by proud piano makers as Ben Niles’ 2007 documentary Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037, the workers diligently adapt their carpentry, welding, molding, and other skills to this new joint endeavor. They amusingly scavenge the detritus of the city’s rusting resources and re-purpose materials from derelict structures to bring the creaky machinery and pulleys in the factory back to temporary life.

This is a lovely addition to the heartwarming genre of films saluting blue-collar workers banding together to take one last inspiring stand in tough times, from the Peter Strauss starrer Heart of Steel (1983), set in Ohio, to Xavier Giannoli’s In the Beginning (A l'origine) (2009), in France. From China, Zhang Yang’s Getting Home (Luo ye gui gen) used similar gentle humor, but mostly we see somber documentaries, such as Lixin Fan’s 2009 Last Train Home (Gui tu lie che), and features that have shown the tremendous economic dislocations from rural to urban migration and construction projects, such as Zhang Ke Jia’s 2008 24 City (Er shi si cheng ji) and 2004 The World (Shijie).

But music here adds a distinctive poignancy, more sophisticated than the British versions that have also used music to showcase talent of the down but not out, including Billy Elliott and Brassed Off, let alone The Full Monty. Albeit the charming climax is flamenco, the musical interludes have an Italian resonance, as Fellini-esque scenes are dropped into a neo-realist view of the tribulations of the working class, with the added irony that they are living in an ostensibly Communist country. There’s doubtless many cultural references in the sprightly musical selections --from the father’s accordion, the daughter’s piano, the band’s performances, and on the soundtrack -- that will go past American audiences (the song credits were not legible in English). The musicians reminisce about getting good tips for playing Russian songs for an engineer who missed his student days in Moscow, and I presume that the patriotic song and dance they nostalgically perform could be one of Madame Mao’s approved Yang Ban Xi: The 8 Model Works.

But it is universal when the daughter sits down at the finished piano in the factory to delightfully demonstrate that the power of creative workers uniting behind a father’s love can transform the sound of music, and the spirit of a city.

Accompanying the feature on the DVD, The Necktie, Jean-François Lévesque’s animated short from the National Film Board of Canada, not only sweetly continues the theme of changing one’s life from a dead end, but also of doing it with accordion music.

December 4, 2011

Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Since August 2006, edited versions of many of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

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