Tuesday, July 29, 2014

AAIFF ’14: Song of the Phoenix

Dewey 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.

Young 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 deceased.

Unfortunately, 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.

It 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.

Tao 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.