The Piano in a Factory -- Film Review

A light though tad melancholy comedy set in a fading factory town in northeastern China.

While the Chinese film "The Piano in a Factory" is designed a little too carefully to be a crowd-pleaser for international audiences as well as domestic ones, the film is certainly not without its charms and good humor.

Music, comedy and a heart-tugging story about a man and his daughter get thrown into the mix along with a crew of motley characters whose actions are aggressively "madcap." It's every bit as Chinese as chop suey.

Little wonder the film premiered in Toronto last month before heading immediately to Tokyo for its Asian debut. "Piano" is certain to make the festival rounds and possibly even win theatrical exposure in non-Asian territories.

The whimsical tale from writer-director Zhang Meng nicely brings in music at every opportunity. Its protagonist, a laid-off steelworker named Chen (Wang Quin-yuan), has two passions in life -- his young daughter and music. When not minding his daughter and mentally deteriorating father, he plays accordion in a band composed of close friends and his girlfriend/singer (Qin Hai-lu).                                    

Despite a lack of income, he pays mightily for his daughter's piano lessons. The music is occasionally Chinese but just as often Russian -- tunes apparently fondly remembered from the Sino-Soviet era -- while the movie's background music reaches far back into Western pop.

Then his estranged wife (Jang Shin-yeong) suddenly materializes after a prolonged absence to demand a divorce (easily granted) and custody of their daughter (a wrenching thought). The little girl proposes that she will go with whichever parent provides her with a piano.

This wish certainly makes the daughter every bit as heartless as her mother, but Zhang's plot turns spring less from character than a need for comic action. So first, Chen tries to borrow money from his generally hapless friends and relations, then to steal a piano with those same hapless souls as his partners in crime. The latter attempt sets the stage for a prolonged comic sequence where failure is preordained.

What left to do but construct his own piano, enlisting the help of his loyal friends and girlfriend? The group salvages material from the remains of the now-shuttered steel factory and other remnants of defunct state-run industries, which is as close to social commentary as this movie ever gets.

Many snags occur in the design and construction of a steel piano although the biggest one happens between the obsessed father and his long-suffering lover. All these sequences get interrupted by comical fights, chases and run-ins with police, none of which are treated as very serious by the filmmaker.

Zhang deliberately avoids social realism. For all the dreariness of the faded factory town, a tone of gentle whimsy embraces all situations and characters, although Zhang is sentimental enough to add a touch of melancholy to his climax.

Wang is a delight as the perplexed but persevering father, while Qin possesses a warmth and genuineness as the lover who is never quite sure where she stands with her distracted man.

All tech credits are first rate as cinematography, set design and editing are in perfect sync with the director' comic intent.

Venue: Tokyo International Film Festival, In Competition
Production company: Etoile Pictures/Liaoning Film Studios
Cast: Wang Qian-yuan, Qin Hai-lu, Jang Shin-yeong, Liu Xing-yu, Liu Qian, Luo Er-yang, Tian-yu, Guo Yong-zhen
Director-screenwriter: Zhang Meng
Producers: Jessica Kam, Choi Gwang-suk
Executive producer: Kwak Jae-young
Director of photography: Shu Chou
Music: Oh Young-mook
Editor: Gao Bo
Unrated, 124 minutes