The Piano in a Factory

The Piano in a Factory (2010) is a comedy drama from China. The film was directed and written by Zhang Meng, with the Korean, Jae-young Kwak as Collaborating Director. I caught this film today at the Sarasota Film Festival.

This is a film whose producers just signed a distribution deal with Film Movement in mid January this year. A New York theatrical opening is planned for this summer, with a limited national roll out to follow. At present, there’s no DVD available, and there’s not even a movie poster available. The image above is a still created from the closing credits.

So what is the buzz about? The story is intriguing. This is Northern China, a heavily industrialized area. But this particular city, is in the throes of the post-industrial hiccups. In fact this is a dying city. Factory after factory have been shutdown, for reasons that could be called obsolesence. Only here, there’s no ‘new’ to replace the old. There’s rampant unemployment, ashen skies, and life is a struggle.

Chen Guilin is a laid-off steel worker. He and his friends are making a meager living as a small musical band for hire. They hire themselves out to occasional weddings and other celebrations, such as a funeral. Chen has a young 10 year old daughter who has shown a great interest and talent for playing the piano.

Chen saves his yuans and pays for his daughter’s tuition at a music academy. One day his wife appears on the scene after being away for years. She’s met a man, is planning to marry, and has come to claim their daughter. Chen resists. The divorce is pending and a decision must be made.

Will the daughter stay with her father or go off with her mother? The clever (and somewhat opportunistic) child decides that she’ll stay with whoever can provide her with a piano. Chen can’t afford to buy one, or even rent a piano. An attempt to steal a piano goes badly, and only because the music school decides to not press charges do the piano thieves go free.

What can he do? But these men, Chen and his pals, are nothing if not clever. So they decide to build a piano from scratch. Will they be able to do it? Can they build a piano from available discarded wood lying about, along with any scrap steel and wire that they can find?

That’s your set up and it’s a pretty good idea. These guys have the time, and the industriousness if not the expertise and the available resources.

On this structured plot, Zhang Meng has built his film. There are some light moments like a chase scene involving two of the band fighting over the band’s female singer. There are touching moments like when Chen contemplates losing his daughter. Plus there are sublime moments which happen when there’s no dialogue – just the music.

Of course you will be surprised that most of the music is Russian, with only an occasional Chinese melody. You will tap your feet, and be caught up in the rhythms of the music. Unfortunately, the musical interludes while wonderful, serve to highlight the deficiences in the drama.

The wife who wants a divorce AND custody of the daughter

There’s a feeling (at times) that the drama is the filler, between the musical segments. There’s also some stylistic issues. One of which is the fact that there are hardly any closeups at all. Virtually every shot during the dialogues are two’s rather than one person then the other.

Then there is the fact that this is Northern China. There’s not a single day with blue skies, or clean air. The sky is always ashen, gray, sooty, or threatening. We see rain as well as snow. This city is also filled with abandoned factories. You have to wait almost 90 minutes for a special scene at the factory when we get a rush of colorful images – all indoors of course – of a series of Chinese girls as flameco dancers – all in brilliant red dresses. This is the sole moment of visual beauty in the entire film.

The frustrated girl friend has just slugged Chen

Looking at the plot, we have the puzzling reticence betwen Chen and his girl friend who is the band’s singer. She seems not only interested in Chen romantically, but she even offers to invite Chen into her home (to spend the night) – only he turns her down twice. Yet he has proposed marriage to her.

The colorful dancing girls

I was also aware of the episodic pacing – drama then music, drama then music. It seemed frustrating that a sense of a dramatic narrative wasn’t maintained. The musical breaks which were always well done, and fun to watch, seemed to interrupt the story.

A long time ago in 1926, Irving Berlin penned a song called Blue Skies:

Blue Skies
Smiling at me
Nothing but blue skies
Do I see

I have the feeling that this was how Zhang Meng wanted us to feel while watching his film. Chen is a light-hearted guy who loved his daughter and his music in that order. The film has its light moments and even moments of high comedy. I only wish the story had more ‘blue skies’ in the figurative sense. As the film ended, there was not a burst of applause. There was some clapping but it never really got going. It was my sense that this crowd was definitely not swept away by this film. I know I wasn’t.

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