Review: To Live to Sing
by Kaleem Aftab
- CANNES 2019: Johnny Ma uses real Sichuan opera performers to show the losing battle that ensues when art venues come up against commerce
To Live to Sing [+see also:
film profile] is an ode to keeping traditional artistic forms alive, especially at moments when they have gone out of fashion or seem financially unviable. It’s the story of how the desire to make money at every turn can lead to short-sighted decisions that kill culture and heritage. It’s a film for anyone who believes in the power of art and that its value can be ascertained from more than just box-office returns. While the focus in Johnny Ma’s second film is on the Sichuan opera in China, the lessons he delivers could easily be applied to European cinema in this movie unspooling in the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight.
Old Stone director Ma first came up with the idea to make a fictional film about the Sichuan opera when he watched a documentary about the troupe made by a journalist in 2013. In the doc, the troupe performed and lived together in a rundown theatre on the outskirts of Chengdu. Ma became infatuated with the characters he saw, and he approached performer Zhao Li about making a film in which she would be the main character, albeit played by Zhao Xiaoli.
The result is To Live to Sing, a film that pays homage to Yasujirō Ozu’s A Story of Floating Weeds, telling the story of Zhao Li’s struggles to keep the opera troupe going after she hears the news that the building that houses them is to be demolished. To make matters worse, her young performers are abandoning the company for more lucrative gigs performing for tourists in a simplified and less authentic version of the Sichuan opera. Zhao Li’s efforts to ask the local bureaucratic leaders to reconsider their decision and support culture fall on deaf ears, until she meets a fan who works at the local administrative offices, who suggests they put on a blockbuster performance that he will persuade his boss to attend, thinking that this show of strength will make him reconsider his decision.
Ma connects this tale of trying to ascertain the non-monetary value of art with Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’Or-winning masterpiece asking similar questions, The Square [+see also:
interview: Ruben Östlund
film profile], by also using Bobby McFerrin’s “Ave Maria” on the soundtrack, which we hear as buildings are shown being bulldozed. It’s a great tune to use over images of demolition because McFerrin built on the work created by composer Bach to prolong the cultural significance of the song. For Zhao Li, the most radical act is for the troupe to keep on performing in a traditional manner and not just give the audiences a “greatest hits” show. She sees cultural heritage as being the most important factor in her work, but that attitude gets in the way of progress in a China that is all about modernisation.
What makes Ma’s film surprising is the delicate way in which he tells the story as well as his affection for the camaraderie among the troupe. Ma himself celebrates the traditional art form by having a mysterious character called Dwarf, who dresses in traditional clothing, appear intermittently and mysteriously. As the film develops, the scenes of the opera become more important and surrealism takes over, with the movie morphing into an opera show that takes place in the midst of all the construction and destruction.
To Live to Sing is a Chinese-French co-production staged by Shenzhen Ming Communication, Image X Productions, Shanghai Tongyue Industrial Co and House on Fire, with the support of the CNC’s World Cinema Support and the Institut français.
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