The Love Songs of Tiedan (Mei Jie): San Sebastian Review

Raucously energetic folk-song celebration from north-west China stands out as a joyous beacon of film-festival fun.

Chinese director Hao Jie's tribute to the folk songs of his native province stars Ye Lan in three separate roles opposite leading man Feng Si.

Two years after his bracingly bawdy debut Single Man premiered in the New Directors section at San Sebastian, independent Chinese director Hao Jie returns with another raucously rollicking crowd-pleaser in The Love Songs of Tiedan (Mei Jie). With the world’s film-festival landscape now so dominated by drearily downbeat fare, distinctive and talented oddballs like Hao are more necessary than ever.

A larkishly knockabout tribute to the Er-ren-tai form of musical performance associated with Hao’s home region in the north-west near the Mongolian border, this colorful, fun and hugely accessible slice of backwater ethnography warrants widespread festival exposure -- Vancouver is next -- and with proper support could even score arthouse distribution in receptive territories.

Co-written with Ge Xia, Hao’s script ambitiously covers a time-span of several decades, though so offhand is the attention to period detail that it’s hard to be sure exactly when anything is taking place. The only specified date is an on-screen caption informing us that in 1966 Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution outlawed Er-ren-tai, a two-person form of mini-opera whose lyrics often deal with adults-only subjects: ‘Have Sex With Sister-in-Law’ is a typical title.

The temporary prohibition of Er-ren-tai is just one hurdle which our hero Tiedan (Feng Si) must cope with in a life as productively hardship-packed as that of any Mississippi blues-man. As a child, the precocious Tiedan (Shi Weicheng) becomes deeply attached to Er-ren-tai-singing neighbor Sister May, and as an adult he ends up having various romantic complications with all three of her children – identified only as First Daughter, Second Daughter and Third Daughter. Versatile, perky Ye Lan plays three roles: the younger Sister May, then First Daughter – who ends up betrothed to a Mongolian from over the border  -- and finally the showbiz-minded Third Daughter, who joins Tiedan’s traveling troupe of players just as Er-ren-tai is entering a terminally unfashionable phase in what looks vaguely like the mid-90s.

Taking their cue from the Er-ren-tai songs themselves, which express passionate feelings in bursts of hyper-stylized intensity, Hao and his Korean editor Baek Seung Hoon sock over short scenes packed with freewheeling incident and comedy, sustain high energy levels throughout. But the film’s style is less berserk than it superficially appears, cinematographer Du Pu’s hyperactive digital cameras not only doing justice to the stunningly varied terrain of Shanxi province but also coming up with some smart, striking compositions in between vibrant hand-held evocations of hectic village life.

Seldom far from some kind of absurdity and never, ever dull, The Love Songs of Tiedan isn’t for those who like their ethnographic cinema tidy, ordered and sensible, or who might be distracted by the protagonist suddenly aging about thirty years in what’s supposed to be a one-decade transition – the delightfully pixie-like Shi somehow turning into the careworn but model-handsome Feng. A dynamic stage presence, this older Tiedan proves much more than a ruggedly pretty face, his character’s bisexuality presented with a matter-of-factness that will likely offend China’s official censors while amusing most everyone else.

Venue: San Sebastian - Donostia Film Festival, Spain (New Directors)
Production company: Heaven Pictures (Beijing) Culture & Media Company, Beijing Yuan Qi Culture & Development Company
Cast: Feng Si, Ye Lan, Shi Weicheng, Du Huanrong, Ge Xia, Feng Yun, Li Yuqin
Director: Hao Jie
Screenwriters: Hao Jie, Ge Xia
Producers: Sun Kui, Chow Keung
Director of photography: Du Pu
Production designer: Li Chunwang
Music: Xiao He
Editor: Baek Seung HoonSales agent: PAD International, Hong Kong
No MPAA rating, 91 minutes 

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