Song of the Phoenix / 百鸟朝凤 / bǎi niǎo cháo fèng (2013)
Director : Wu Tianming
Screenwriter : Wu Tianming, Luo Xueying, Xiao Jianghong
Cinematographer : Wang Tianlin
Editor : Peng Wang
Cast : Li Mincheng, Zheng Wei, Hu Xianxu, Zhang Xiqian, Chi Peng, Ji Bo
Music : Zhang Dalong
The director of this film recently passed away in 2014. I had to look it up but I had seen one of his past films, The King of Masks, which I liked a lot. That film brought to light an old Chinese traditional performance art. Similarly, Song of the Phoenix does the same by introducing the traditional wind instrument called SuoNa. It’s a music instrument that sounds more like a horn. SuoNa is traditionally played at weddings and particularly funerals but is not limited to such events. The title of the film refers to a difficult and highly regarded song that is only played at the funerals of the most virtuous people (although how this is decided is not really covered and not the point of the film).
The story focuses on a boy, Tianming, who becomes an apprentice to a master SuoNa player. Another young boy, Lanyu, also becomes an apprentice and helps motivate Tianming. We see Tianming grow up from a little boy who resents being forced to practice a musical instrument to the extremely dedicated adult successor of his master who struggles to preserve the legacy of SuoNa as villagers gravitate towards Western music. Yes, perfect fodder/brainwashing for parents who force their kids to play an instrument (at least initially).
I’m always glad for films that showcase a little known art but at times I feel the film is not necessarily fulfilling this goal. Leaving aside my own opinion of the instrument’s sound (I don’t really like it, especially the higher pitched SuoNa instruments, I can only tolerate the lower pitched one). The times when we are supposed to feel emotional at hearing SuoNa are accompanied by additional background music that in my opinion undermines the supposed beauty of SuoNa. If this instrument is so moving why does the director choose to add backing music that sounds like violins (to my untrained ear)? This is in contrast to the scene where the SuoNa players, feeling overshadowed, start to play at the same time as a Jazz band, as both groups try to one up each other.
The message of the film is pretty obvious, don’t forget old traditions or they’ll disappear forever. Yet the film itself does not show what is being done to preserve the tradition. Other than making some sound recordings which isn’t really preserving it if musicians can’t make any money actually playing the instrument. Certainly the master only training one student as his successor while eventually rejecting a talented second student does not help.
The film is mostly compelling from a human drama perspective with bits of humor here and there (like the boy being tasked to suck water up a reed for months). His master is strict in that familiar way that is cruelly amusing to watch. The acting is very good. The film drags at times but if you’re interested in the subject matter, it’s worth watching but I didn’t entirely enjoy it.