Filled with entrancing, spectacular dance sequences, “Sun Bird” looks great. The trouble is that the drama surrounding the choreographed sequences is not nearly as captivating as the onstage performances of co-director Yang Liping, who is a Chinese folk dancer. Based in part on her life story, this tale of a young girl from a remote village who becomes a dance star and suffers an emotional breakdown is full of dramatic possibility. But the film’s main characters are curiously cold and lifeless. Chances of “Sun Bird” takingflight beyond the fest horizon are slim. Pic won the Special Grand Prix of the Jury at Montreal.
Tana (Yang) is having trouble with her eyesight, and doctors suggest her problem may well be psychological. She is haunted by memories of her difficult childhood in a remote mountain village; in fact, most of her dances seem to be drawn from her rural background. She lost both parents at a young age and is particularly scarred by the death of her mother, who expired during childbirth.
Life in the village rotated around various dance rituals, notably fertility dances. Tana’s obsession with the tribal chief who led the dance ceremonies makes it hard for her to build relationships as an adult. Her manager and lover, Yuan Wen (co-director Wang Xueqi), is unable to break through her psychic defenses and walks out on her halfway through the pic.
Yang and Wang, making their feature directing debuts, are at their best when shooting the many dance segments, which capture Yang’s subdued but sensual style of movement. Flashbacks to the dreamlike world of her old village are also quite entrancing and are much more atmospheric than any of the present-day scenes. But the chronicle of Tana’s midlife crisis is almost devoid of emotional spark, muting the overall impact of the pic.
Neither Yang nor Wang is particularly effective as a thesp, though Yang unquestionably impresses in the onstage sequences. The art direction is top-notch, with elaborate stage sets used to good effect in the dance pieces; lensing relies on striking, contrasting colors to mirror Yang’s psychic distress.