'To Live to Sing' ('Huo Zhe Chang Zhe'): Film Review | Cannes 2019

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
An ode to a vanishing way of life.

The second film of China-born Canadian filmmaker Johnny Ma deals with a Sichuan Opera troupe and its manager's struggle when her theater is threatened with demolition.

In one of the droll moments in Johnny Ma's To Live to Sing, an old Sichuan opera fan draws a comb across his bald head, attending to the hair which has long since vanished. It's a blink-and-you-miss-it gag, but it sums up the theme driving the film. Revolving around a troupe manager trying to keep her company afloat in the face of dwindling audience numbers and the menacing claws of gentrification, the second feature by Ma, a Canadian-Chinese filmmaker based in Shanghai, offers a heartrending account of one person’s increasingly frantic but ultimately futile efforts to bring back the glory days that have long receded into the past.

This engaging drama about the damage being inflicted on traditional artists and the working poor in China and perhaps around the world is an apt reflection on what limits those who aspire to exist on their own terms. Starring real-life Sichuan opera performers and filmed in a dilapidated neighborhood nearing the end of its existence, To Live to Sing — bowing in the Directors' Fortnight sidebar at Cannes — is a much grittier take on urban malaise than Diao Yinan's neo-noir The Wild Goose Lake, which premiered in official competition. But Ma's film is not a mere social-realist tract. He has spiced the story with a handful of surreal scenes to highlight the real-life nightmare his protagonist is living through.

Which is all very well. Somehow having passed China's rigorous censorship regime — the "Dragon Seal," the stamp of approval from the country's increasingly stringent film bureau, appears onscreen before the opening credits — the pic illustrates how, despite all the official vaunting of the so-called "Chinese Dream," the provincial working class is struggling not just to maintain their lifestyles or realize their creative ambitions, but to actually survive.

Anchored by an intense, highly convincing turn from opera performer turned actor Zhao Xiaoli, To Live to Sing contrasts sharply in style with Ma's 2017 debut, the award-winning urban noir Old Stone. The new film, a France-China co-production, is a successful and highly humanistic mix of drama, ethnography and (mild) social commentary which should be music to programmers' ears, especially those who selected Cui Yi's 2016 shadow-puppet documentary Of Shadows for their festivals.

At the center of the movie is the Jinli ("Golden and Glittering") Sichuan Opera Troupe — or, according to a tattered sign in front of the theater, the Jinli Young Sichuan Opera Troupe. But there's nothing golden, glittering or youthful about the company anymore; it's staffed by middle-aged artistes, and its regular audience is mostly old-timers. Even these diehards nap and fiddle with their phones during the show. It’s a vibe that runs through the performers, too; they watch online videos on their tablets, play with toy guns and dance to Euro-disco in front of the mirror.

Presiding over them is Zhao Li (Zhao Xiaoli), a woman who has to constantly fend off suggestions from the troupe that they should face reality and take up circus-like performances in local hotpot restaurants. She is pinning her last hope on her niece, Dan Dan (Gan Guidan), but the young woman, the only under-30 member of the company, has plans of her own. The challenges multiply when she receives a document informing her of the upcoming demolition of the theater. Given the runaround by bureaucrats — the same ones who pay lip service to supporting the traditional arts, then do nothing about it — she’s told her only hope lies in putting on a spectacular show for the local culture chief.

With its depictions of working-class life and all the camaraderie and conflicts that comes with it, To Live to Sing looks like something Ken Loach would approve of. But there's more to the film than just gritty realism. With tech support from French DP Matthias Delvaux (Golden Horse nominee for Old Beast), art director Zhang Xueqiang and editor Ana Godoy, Ma has added a splattering of fantastic imagery into the film.

A running device is the appearance of a dwarf who leads Zhao Li to places where she makes discoveries: Dan Dan's clandestine side job as an underdressed nightclub singer, for instance, or her husband (Yan Xihu) striking a deal with a shady type about unsavory shows in low-class eateries. And then there's Zhao Li's recurrent slow-motion dream about the destruction of her life. These nightmares eventually balloon into the pic's climax, in which she emerges onto a dusty stage in full Sichuan opera gear, fighting off villains and ending up alone, a lonely heroine silhouetted against a backdrop of buildings in ruins.

It's a set piece that allows Zhao Li to release her pent-up fury. But it's also a sequence in which the actor Zhao Xiaoli, a real-life troupe manager and performer in the city of Chengdu, shows off the skills of his profession. Zhao Li, too, gets to sing in a sad, wintry coda when her character's sorry fate is more than sealed. But the joyous music lingers, even as the camera surveys the shattered bricks and mortar her dreams were built on. "Boundless is the land for all to sing" — so goes the final lyric.

Production companies: Shenzhen Ming Communication, Image X Productions, Shanghai Tongyue Industrial Co and House on Fire
Cast: Zhao Xiaoli, Gan Guidan, Yan Xihu
Director-screenwriter: Johnny Ma
Producers: Wu Xianjian, Jing Wang with Vincent Wang
Executive producer: Deng Jie
Director of photography: Matthias Delvaux
Art director: Zhang Xueqiang
Costume designer: Adam Lim
Music: Jongho You, Jimin Kim
Editor: Ana Godoy
Casting director: Wang Daomei
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors' Fortnight)
Sales: Films Boutique

In Mandarin
100 minutes