By Jason Lin
Zhigen, an old Chinese farmer, has lived alone in Beijing for over 20 years after moving to the city to allow his son Chongyi to attend university. He decides to make the long journey from Beijing to Yangshuo to honour the promise he made to his wife to bring back the bird that has been his only companion in the city. His daughter-in-law Qianing, a beautiful rich career woman, asks him to take along his granddaughter Renxing, an only child brought up in the lap of luxury. While grandfather and granddaughter set out on their journey – one travelling back in time, the other discovering her roots – Chongyi and Qianing, ponder the meaning of the life they have led in the sole pursuit of success and money.
Being the second formal French-Chinese film production, it is amazing how its French Director and Screenwriter Philippe Muyl (Le Papillon) delivers The Nightingale with such cultural aptness given that it’s a film set in China in full Mandarin dialogue among Chinese characters.
The Nightingale is loosely based and inspired by Muyl’s previous film Le Papillon, which also discusses the dynamics of the relationship between an elder man and a young girl. Labelling The Nightingale purely as an adaption however, doesn’t do it justice as it exudes qualities that are unique to the film.
Viewers are introduced to a young middle age couple living the urbanistic hustle and bustle in Beijing, which can easily be replicated within any of China’s major first-tier cities like Shanghai. This is one of the few other socialpolitical elements reflected in the film, including China’s One-Child Policy and the trend of parents overdoting on their precious offsprings in contemporary times.
A leading jetsetting architect, Chong Yi (Qin Hao), is full of negative vibes due to some unknown frustration that seems to find its roots a long way back in history as hints of a bad relationship with his father Zhi Gen (Li Baotian) is discussed between Zhi Gen and Chong Yi’s trendy businesswoman spouse played by Li Xiaoran (Peter Chan’s Wu Xia). The couple’s only child Ren Xing (Yang Xin Yi) is about to coop herself up within the confines of their modern apartment with the latest iPad in hand and oblivious to the society.
These are soon to be changed with Zhi Gen offering to take Ren Xing back to his rural home town in Yangshuo. The dynamics of the two’s relationship begin to take centrestage and develop over most of the film’s running time. The outcome is the transformation of a Ren Xing who thinks she’s above all else around her and not able to survive without her tablet to a Ren Xing who appreciates the joys induced by elements of nature and the goodness of the people around her.
Not just the young girl, her grandfather begins to confront his shortcomings more openly although his character begins already as an accommodating and understanding paternal figure to his granddaughter. This in turn sets further good things in motion, which can generally be described as a domestic feelgood recouncilation that warms the hearts of the audience.
One begins to understand the need to maintain an open channel of communication between and among people around. Conversations break barriers and pull the hearts of people closer in understanding. Muyl almost seems to imply that nature has a hand in achieving this, especially when people are freed from urban social distractions such as hectic work schedules and digital online/social media.
Perhaps Sun Ming’s luscious photography has a hand in this as well, with a rich colour treatment bringing the comfortable sense of scenic green and sunshine so much more vividly to viewers. This is also accentuated by Armand Armar’s delicate soundtrack that seems to always find itself in a chirpy mood, much in line with the film’s title and motif – The Nightingale (the one thing that created the family woes and also the one that reunited the family).
With a lively performance by its cast ensemble, particularly Li Baotian and Yang Xin Yi, The Nightingale sings a song that is soothing to one’s senses and inspires the finer details and values in life that Muyl is hoping his viewers (particularly those leading an urban life) will reconnect with.
(Preview courtesy of InCinemas.sg and part of the 3rd Rendezvous with French Cinema Singapore.)