Another new Chinese film I cautiously recommend is Folk Songs Singing (2011, 107 min., 郎在对门唱山歌), directed by probably the oldest member of the “sixth generation” of Chinese filmmakers Zhang Ming, who turns 50 this year and teaches directing at BFA (Beijing Film Academy). Zhang is known mainly through his existential take on human relationship in Rainclouds Over Wushan (1996, 巫山云雨). This was followed by a few obscure titles that were rarely shown at local cinemas. With this new film, however, Zhang will for sure get more media exposure and festival invitations.
The success of the film largely comes from the casting choice the director makes. The one who stands out most is the newcomer Lv Xingchen. She is not as beautiful as Fan Bingbing, Li Bingbing or Zhang Ziyi, but has this ability to instantly grab the audience’s attention with her somewhat naive, sweetheart-like, yet unyielding look on the big screen. In the film, she portrays a girl/woman emotionally caught up between two guys, one a stone-faced college graduate/music tutor who comes from a poor family background but with music talent, the other a blockhead who talks like a bad textbook but comes from the local Party boss family. Lv’s mesmerizing performance makes the character’s transition from an innocent high-school girl to an emotionally tormented woman seem effortless.
When I say “cautiously recommend,” I mean the film to me is sometimes uneven and hard to pin down in its narrative direction. It seems to me that Zhang Ming has this ability to build up tensions but at the same time the audience would probably feel disappointed since it is often the case that no result will really come out of these tensions. For instance, the beginning rooftop sequence, excellently filmed, introduces the girl’s father, a local deputy police chief who seems to be willing to do whatever he can to fawn on the local Party boss to get himself promoted. This seems to point to a forced marriage between his artistically talented daughter and the dumb blockhead. But as the story develops, this carefully built tension is entirely dropped out in favor of the girl’s unhappy relationship with the music tutor. The obstacle between the girl and her music tutor is thus reduced to a woman of few words who quietly takes care of the tutor’s ailing mother (who never appears on the screen).
Using film as a means to promote local culture and tourism is increasingly a common practice for many county-level governments in China. Like Eyes of a Beauty (西施眼, 2002) by Guan Hu, which “advertises” the small but beautiful city of Zhuji in Zhejiang Province , Folk Songs Singing is also meant to promote the local culture of Ziyang, a small county located in Shan’xi Province. Judging from these two works, one can at least say this model, with investment from the “advertised” city/county (in this case, 5 million yuan from the local government) and film talents from elsewhere (usually Beijing or Shanghai), has produced some positive and win-win results.
Folk Songs Singing pocketed three major awards at the 14th Shanghai International Film Festival: Best Screenplay for Zhang Ming, Best Music for Wen Zi, and, of course, Best Actress in a leading role for Lv Xingchen.