Redman often played the suona, but he was amazing. Sadly, Chinese musicians who
have mastered the traditional trumpet-like reed instrument are becoming rather
scarce. Yet, an aging master’s chosen successor will try to carry on as best he
can in Wu Tianming’s final film, Song of
the Phoenix (trailer
here) , which
screens during the 2014 Asian American International Film Festival in New York.
You Tianming’s underwhelming lung power is a distinct drawback for the
unforgiving suona. On the other hand, he has the heart and sensitivity of an
artist. During his years of youthful study, You often thought he was playing
second fiddle to his fellow apprentice, Lanyu. Yet their master Jiao Sanye chooses
You to learn the “Song of the Phoenix.” Considered the apex of suona
repertoire, the song is a requiem that masters will only play for the worthiest
just as Tianming assumes the leadership of Jiao’s ensemble, demand for suona
musicians plummets. Instead, the villagers of his region increasingly opt for
western-style bands. With his health failing, Master Jiao has trouble
understanding the macro dynamics threatening the suona tradition.
is almost eerie how apt Phoenix is as
a summing up film for the late Wu. Perhaps best known for King of Masks, the “Fourth Generation” filmmaker is arguably even
more renowned for incubating “Fifth Generation” talent (notably including Chen
Kaige and Zhang Yimou) when tapped to lead the Xi’an Film Studios. He also
spent several years in America as an informal exile following the Tiananmen
Square crackdown. Clearly, he had a keen understanding of time’s passage and
the need to mentor successive generations.
Zeru is quite extraordinary as Master Jiao, evolving from the coldly
manipulative Prof. Kingsford of the suona into an ailing former legend,
struggling to make sense of the world that has passed him by. Li Mingcheng is
almost painfully earnest as the adult You. They are surrounded by a talented
supporting ensemble and some first-rate suona players.
Suona music might be an acquired taste, but it
nicely accents Phoenix’s incredible
backdrops, which often look like scenes from ancient watercolors. Frankly, the
film does not hold many surprises in terms of narrative arc or character
development, but it still gracefully critiques the ultra-modern go-go prejudices
that have lost sight of long-esteemed Chinese musical and cultural practices. Truly
lovely to look at, Song of the Phoenix is
worth seeing (particularly by those who appreciate Wu’s position in the Chinese
cinema pantheon) when it screens tonight (7/29) at the Village East, as part of
this year’s AAIFF.
Labels: AAIFF '14, Chinese Cinema, Wu Tianming