Zhang Meng’s third feature is a thoughtful, frequently whimsical look at the plight of those who have been forced to find new means of employment in the wake of “progress” abandoning their previous livelihoods.
Chen Guilin (Wang Qian-Yuan carries the film with a wonderful mix of Walter Mitty dreaminess, stoicism and fellow-worker persuasiveness) now spends his days leading a motley crew of intrepid musicians and an alluring lead singer (Hailu Kin is ideally cast as the chanteuse/paramour, “happy with the way things are” Shu Xian), playing their hearts out at funerals, weddings or other special occasions. The single parent is surprised when his long-absent wife (Jang Shin-Yeong) turns up out of the blue to demand a divorce and custody of their only child. The youngest love of his life has a talent for the piano so—“just like your mother”—opts to remain with the parent who can provide an instrument to practise on.
Not surprisingly, music takes a central role in the film whose narrative starts intriguingly before falling into the trap of somewhat contrived vignettes which more fill time than move the story forward (an unexpected, unwed pregnancy sparking the one-for-all/all-for-one capture of the instant dad adds little to the drama). One marvellous reversal of fortune concerns the manner in which Guilin’s ex has moved up in life. Turns out her new man makes buckets of cash selling fake medicine at inflated prices—what fun with the opposite resonation to The Music Man (cross-reference below) where Prof. Harold Hill is a snake oil salesman who eventually turns his life around by selling the gift of music to naïve kids and their doting, then damning, finally delighted parents.
Working against the divorce-court clock, the devoted father first tries to fill the instrumental deficiency with a painted “air” keyboard whose only sounds stem from the imagination “Like Beethoven—he couldn’t hear”). Sadly, the make-believe piece (one could have taken bets) was the German master’s Für Elise, which has become an aural cliché due to overuse in all manner of film and theatrical productions (cross-reference below).
Following a failed upright heist attempt, Guilin turns to his largely impoverished friends and relatives one more time. After much contemplation and consultation with engineer extraordinaire, Mr. Wang, and Brother Ji, who—although recently out of work—still has the keys to the failed steel foundry, it’s decided to craft the 8,000 components themselves and build a piano from the pedals up.
This last half of the film has elements of early “Ocean’s” or Mission Impossible productions as the talent (here including Lightning Fingers and Fat Head) required—the pig butcher being an early hold out—are assembled and John Steinbeck’s Mac and the Boys: well-meaning, booze-devoted buds whose good intentions almost never produce anything but mayhem and further despair. With much of the action taking place in the shuttered factory, there is a strong connection with Peer Zelenka’s industrial setting of The Karamazovs (cross-reference below).
Zhang and Wang frequently combine their considerable talents to magical effect whether making systemic commentaries (developing a value proposition for now useless smokestacks works on many levels) or just having fun. Gluing it all together is a Russian-infused group of minstrels that will make the soundtrack a zesty hit all on its own.
Le Noeaud Cravate/The Necktie
Canada, 12 min.
Not coincidentally (the programmers at Film Movement take great care when choosing their companion shorts) the music for Lévesque’s brief masterpiece is led by the accordion—Guilin’s instrument of choice above. Kudos to Hugo Fleury for crafting the ever-engaging tracks and the invigorating performances from Pascal Gingras and Martin Desjardins—what fun to have the deep bass clarinet take a pivotal part.
Rich in metaphor, the long-nose puppet hero sees his life slip by in the aptly named La Vie Inc. tower where every floor marks another year in the dreary life of a paper pusher (ironing out the kinks of others for no apparent cause speaks volumes about the drudgery of office life). How would we react to the horrors awaiting on floor 65? All that’s missing is the Orwellian Room 101. Busking never looked so tempting. JWR