Sunday, May 26, 2024

Movie Review (Cannes Film Festival 2023): ‘A Song Sung Blue’ is Beautiful and Unoriginal

Director: Zihan Geng

Writer: Liu Yining

Stars: Huang Ziqi, Zhou Meijun, Liang Long, Liang Jing

Synopsis: Fifteen year-old Xian goes to live with her father while her mother, a doctor, takes a job in Africa. Soon, she becomes fascinated by her father’s stepdaughter, a swaggering, liberated and slightly melancholic young woman.

The story being told by Zihan Geng and screenwriter Liu Yining in A Song Sung Blue has been seen plenty of times, particularly in the film festival circuit these past few years. And although the array of tropes and cliches might be bothersome for some viewers seeking a different type of journey, the elegance and naturalistic beauty of the central performances by Huang Ziqi and Liang Jing help the film be pretty engaging on an emotional level. 

Youth is a fragile state that serves as a learning pattern for life’s multiple (and concurrent) ups and downs. Everyone takes it for granted before they realize later that those were some of the most important and wistful days of their life; those are the days that shape our lives. In random moments, we get glimpses of our past experience and feel a splash of youth flowing through oursoul. The directorial debut from young filmmaker in Zihan Geng, A Song Sung Blue (premiering at the Cannes Film Festival in the Director’s Fortnight sidebar) captures this essence beautifully through a story about two girls struggling to find their place in the world. Unfortunately, her film can be placed onto the sorting hat of wispy coming-of-age dramas – where a summer (and a special person) paves the way for the enlightenment of a teenager – that make the festival rounds all year round. 

Set in the early 2010s, A Song Sung Blue follows a shy fifteen-year-old girl named Xian (Zhou Meijun) who lives in the northeast area of Harbin with her divorced mother (Liang Jing). Xian loves being with her mother, although her teenage angst sometimes gets the better of her. However, things will change, at least for the summer, as her mother has accepted a two-month position in Africa so that it can give her better opportunities in the future. Because of this, she is sent to live with her father (Liang Long), who runs a struggling photography studio, for a while. She hasn’t seen him since her parents’ divorce a few years ago. Xian isn’t excited to see him after all this time, asking her mother not to go to Africa so she doesn’t spend the Summer alone. From the moment he appears onscreen, you get the feeling that Xian’s chemistry with him isn’t the same as her mother’s. 

There’s a lot of distance and resentment from Xian, as her father wants to connect with her by all means, even introducing her to his Korean-Chinese partner/assistant and pet monkey. The first two days are a bit rough, as the lonesome Xian is forced to have some of her classmates over at the photo studio, her father taking advantage of the situation and charging them for group pictures. She isn’t being noticed by them or by her father. So, Xian heads to the backroom to take a breather. And that’s when she meets the person that will change her life forever: her father’s stepdaughter, the eighteen-year-old Jin Mingmei (Huang Ziqi). Mingmei will be the guiding light to illuminate Xian’s road of self-discovery and desire – she treats her older step-sibling like an idol, a poster of a celebrity on the wall. 

It is not only Mingmei’s aspirations of opening a shop and ditching the flight attendant courses she’s taking that make Xian want to win her affection. But also the radiance she transmits through her daily life brightens Xian’s previously lonely life; a gray-hued room pops with color the moment she arrives. Zihan Geng delves into the coming-of-age tropes and cliches through these sisters’ newly-formed relationship, serving some scenes that remind of other (and better) films. We have seen this type of dynamic hundreds of times which is a magnet to these movies because people relate to them. I think the film relies so much on the relatability factor that it fails to expand its story into something of greater narrative weight. 

A Song Sung Blue may have a style that reminds of Wong Kar-wai and a blue-hued filter that covers the screen in a hazy lens, shot by a cinematographer (HJY) who seeks out the more grounded side in each frame. But that constant pressure to make audiences feel like they have gone through these same or similar situations holds it back. However, at the same time, this same relationship that is mostly forged by tropes comes through with nuance and beauty, primarily through Huang Ziqi and Liang Jing’s touching performances. An easily identifiable contrast between the two characters – the introverted Mingmei and the extroverted Xian, teenage angst versus the bliss of youth –makes some of the narrative beats quite emotionally engrossing. Mistaking emotions is a crucial aspect of growing up, and Zihan Geng directs these actresses to the point where they reflect this sensation effortlessly. 

The rest of the cast doesn’t leave much of an impression since the story revolves around the two leads for the most part. But, there are a few scenes between Xian and her mother that are quite moving, although recognizable. Zihan’s filmmaking skills are admirable, often demonstrating that the issues with her directorial debut are primarily contained in its screenplay and narrative development. While A Song Sung Blue has its fair share of beautiful scenes, the lingering sensation of been-there-done-that haunts the film during its wistful ninety-two-minute runtime. 

Grade: C+

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