Sunday, November 09, 2014

Submitted by China: The Nightingale

Like an MTV awards show, you can count on China’s official foreign language Oscar submission to generate unnecessary controversy. Usually, it comes from regime-friendly films submitted at the expense of internationally acclaimed festival favorites that do not slavishly toe the Party’s line. In 2008, nobody saw the Olympic doc Dream Weavers: Beijing 2008 outside of the Mainland, but it got the nod over Jia Zhangke’s 24 City. Again in 2013, the Chiang Kai-shek demonizing Back to 1942 was selected over Jia’s A Touch of Sin. See a pattern here? Ironically, the Chinese authorities went in the other direction this year, snubbing Diao Yinan’s Golden Lion winning Black Coal, Thin Ice in favor of an intergenerational road movie directed by a Frenchman. Playing it safe, China might actually win a bit of favor with older Academy members with this year’s official submission, Philippe Muyl’s The Nightingale (trailer here).

For the second official French-Chinese co-production, Muyl “revisited” the themes from his 2002 film, The Butterfly. Instead of a butterfly collecting grand-père, Zhu Zhigen is spry old-timer, who longs to return his beloved late wife’s nightingale to their former village. Estranged from his son for dubious reasons, Zhu has never really known his privileged but lonely granddaughter Renxing. However, when her mother Qianying must leave on another business trip before her architect father Chongyi returns from his own, she is reluctantly left in Zhu’s care. Rather than just sit around the flat, he resolves to take her and the nightingale on a trip to his ancestral home, while he and the bird still have the time.

Of course, Renxing is initially quite a pill to travel with, but just as certainly, a bond will soon form between them. She will also start forging real friendships with children her own age when a series of detours forces them to make a long stop-over in an insanely picturesque village quite a bit out of their way. Eventually, Renxing’s parents will follow after them, having first resolved to divorce. Can the newly sensitive Renxing find some magic in Guangxi to keep them together?

Probably, but it all looks lovely on-screen regardless. While mostly rather apolitical, Nightingale’s journey can be interpreted as a celebration of traditional village life and a critique go-go urban values (like capitalism and democracy) by implication, making it quite compatible with current regime messaging.

In all honesty, there are worse strategic choices than Nightingale when it comes to Oscar love. As Renxing, young Yang Xinyi is just relentlessly cute. Likewise, the veteran Li Baotian nicely balances stately dignity with a bit of scrappy attitude. Eric Qin and Li Xiaoran are also rather photogenic and reasonably engaging as the parents learning their predictable lessons. Yet, Renxing and Zhu’s most important co-star is the lush natural vistas cinematographer Sun Ming artfully frames.

On a technical level, Nightingale is quite accomplished, featuring one of Armand Amar’s best film scores to date (no, he’s not Chinese either). Still, it is undeniably conventional and sometimes shamelessly manipulative—neither of which are necessarily bad things for Oscar campaigning, but will leave more adventurous viewers wishing it had been slightly more ambitious. A major case of niceness, The Nightingale is now in contention for foreign language Oscar consideration, pretty much guaranteeing it a return engagement at next year’s Palm Spring International Film Festival and probably considerably more attention on the wider fest circuit.