Review of The Piano in a Factory (钢的琴; China, 2010)

November 29, 2012

Review of The Piano in a Factory (钢的琴;China, 2010), A Liaoning Film Studio, Etoile Pictures, in association with Daye Media Group, Beijing Huo Jingyuan Film & TV production. Released in the United States by Film Elements (DVD).

Director: Zhang Meng
Producer: Kwak Jae-Young
Screenwriter: Zhang Meng
Cinematographer: Shu Chou
Editor: Lu Yun, Gao Bo
Music: Oh Yeong-muk
Art Direction: Wang Shuo, Zhang Yi
Costumes: Ma Jing
Sound: Lee Sang-wook, Lee Seong-jun, Jeong Ji-yong
Visual Effects: Han Myeong-heui
Cast: Wang Qianyuan (Chen Guilin), Qin Hailu (Shuxian), Jang Shin-yeong (Xiao Ju), Liu Xingyu (Xiao Yuan), Zhang Huizhi (Chen’s father), Tian Yu (Wang Kangmei), Zhou Kui (Big Liu), Ding Yan (Chen’s elder sister), Xu Jiangning (her husband), Liu Qian (Fat Head), Wang Zaoqin (Wang), Luo Eryang (Brother Ji), Guo Yongzhen (Lightning Fingers), Zhang Yaxi (An Changye), Wang Yue (piano teacher)
Running time: 107 MIN.
Release Date(s): October 23, 2010 (Tokyo International Film Festival), July 15, 2011 (China)

Reviewed by NYU Student Andrew Scott

The Piano in a Factory (2010), d. Zhang Meng

Comedy, while often dismissed as the lesser sibling of drama and adventure, is in many ways key to the survival of all storytelling.  With perhaps the exception of tears, laughter is the only tangible evidence of the boundary between vicarious and actual experience shared between the heroes on screen and their Cineplex counterparts.  We’ve all known laughter, and its power of relation and universality, though difficult to attain, is a catharsis perhaps without equal.

The audience, especially those sitting in the Cineplex unaware and unrelated to the poor world the characters of The Piano in the Factory find themselves in, are allowed to join in the laughter, and get to know these characters as friends before the heavier subtext really begins to take hold.  Consequently, we do not watch these people struggling in their ironic task to build a piano; we join them in their plight.  It is a communal atmosphere very appropriate for the film, which like many great comedies is built up from an eclectic group of friends bonding together the only way they know how.  Their struggle is never pathetic, instead gaining a poetic air with their passionate toil of pragmatic determination and their leader’s seemingly unending optimism.  This slew of oddball characters adds another layer of humanity for the viewer, each perhaps able to pick out their various traits and plights as our own.  Their woes, though applied to a world of borderline poverty, take on the forms of universal struggles we’re all affected by in our day-to-day lives.  Whether it’s trouble with the law, a past we’re not proud of, or dealing with a daughter’s indiscretions, these are human struggles given reality from human laughter.

The Piano is never gaudy, using its ensemble to allow humor from the inner relations of the group as opposed to Will Ferrell one-liners or absurdist gimmicks.  It all fits in with the subtly somber tone.  Yet the film, like the lead, has its chin up, and there’s an almost animated effect to the locations.  Just as a dingy cabin in the woods can be an inspiring safe haven in the animated exploits of Shrek or Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the town in The Piano is filmed like a warm brown wonderland of pipes and alcoves.  It’s a place seen through the eyes of protagonists that would fight for the preservation of smokestacks that remind them of their old workplace.  It thus takes on another aspect of the comedy, putting something of a sugarcoating, if an ultimately ironic glaze, onto the fairly bleak environment surrounding them.  It’s an illusion that, when broken, is all the more harrowing, leaving our lead facing a lonely apartment and the broken pieces of a soundless keyboard shattered on the floor.

Nevertheless, our hero persists.  As he sets about his new-found goal, the struggle that provides the film its plot, it plays more like heist film than any sort of typical dramedy.  He takes on the mantle of the desperate and determined outlaw looking for one last bust to retire on.  He begins to assemble his team of experts, the wily old thinker, the wealthy businessman, the ex-criminal, and the femme fatale.  And that guy who just doesn’t want to be left out.  Director’s Zhang Meng and Jae-young Kwak have a keen eye for the fast paced American heist, and they’re quick to employ their steady understanding of these tactics to their own world.  Like any good heist film, the exposition becomes the entertainment.  We spend a large amount of time meeting the various colorful characters that compose the squad, we revel in their clever conquering of the various obstacles at hand, and we cross our fingers for a hopeful outcome.  Meng and Kwak’s camera never misses a beat, fueling the film with a kinetic energy, always panning side to side, unraveling the carefully blocked interaction of the large group with each new scene, playing like a montage to the film’s flamboyant soundtrack that takes advantage of the tonal freedom allowed by the comedic genre.  Scenes are stitched together with this motion, offering an upbeat pace with each transition that reflects the spirit of our lead.  And when he loses spirit, they continue to mirror his mood, breaking to static shots that are often cripplingly serious, devastatingly decorating the inner inhibitions and doubts of our fearless leader.  His realizations are our own, and it soon becomes apparent that his wife, for all her pomp and circumstance, is in a better position to consistently provide for his daughter.

It is here that we could see our hero broken.  His optimism shot, his world collapsed.  He does not smile as the finished piano is lowered and presented to his daughter. Yet their struggle is not in vain.  It is something beautiful that’s brought them all together, and like the warm haven they’ve made from their grim town, they hear not the tinny echoes of a metal makeshift piano, but the simple beauty of incantations drawn from the loving hands of the girl at the center of their quest.  The victory, though void of its initial goal, has become something symbolic.

Meng and Kwak have turned their exploits into a light comedy, a heist film, and thanks to a few lavish sequences that round out the persistently inspired soundtrack, a musical as well.  This nod to genres is perhaps most clearly reflected in the early scene where they actually try to pull off a heist, breaking into a goofy song as they drunkenly stumble through the night after the school piano.  And in many ways this is a pure utilization of genres, tools created for audience enjoyment, and more notably used to offer entertainment even when the source material is dark or unpleasant.  And it can be unpleasant.  Our heroes struggle even to come up with basic funds, their wealthiest friend is arrested for fraud, and they only have time to commit to such a project because of they are essentially jobless.  These undertones persist throughout, and the often-grim realities of this borderline poverty are silently echoed in every corner of the film.  It’s a sadness presented to us but then hastily whirred away, as the group’s mentality changes and we rejoin their subjective struggle.

The Piano speaks to the pragmatic prowess of the Chinese people, who still manage to persist despite conditions that seem more fitted to the weariness of a third world nation, not an economic superpower.  It’s a discrepancy once again given light by China’s filmmakers, but unlike Jia Zhang-Ke or Zhang Yimou, Meng and Kwak avoid the dead despair that seems to permeate the older generation’s films, instead opting for musical numbers and sight gags.  While all four artists seem to speak to the prevalent universality of their subjects’ struggles, Meng and Kwak are the only ones that puts you on the ground with them.  Zhang Yimou’s Ju Dou is content to have you at a distance, and Jiang Zhang-Ke’s Still Life gives you rare glimpses of their inner thoughts via poignant instances of magical realism, but only Meng and Kwak put you in their subjective shoes for the duration, using laughs as their weapon of choice.  For these characters, their circumstances are seemingly all they’ve ever known, and much of the viewer’s perceived sorrow of this world and setting are just everyday life for these characters, who go so far as to idolize the smokestacks they used to work under.  Meng and Kwak have removed the barrier between the worlds of the audience and the characters by lending you their eyes, and turning their sorrows into a series of adventures.  And who doesn’t romanticize their life, aren’t we all just living our own narratives given drama and meaning form the exploits of those we idolize onscreen or in books or even in our day to day lives?  Life is in the eyes of the beholder, and in this case it’s a band of oddballs led by a determined craftsman, loving father, and spirited musician; and in this way they transcend the starkness of their setting for something majestic.  They aren’t a bunch of poor musicians struggling to get by, they’re great friends and expert craftsmen banding together for one last all important job, with only their passion for music and each other to guide them.