The members of a small opera troupe are forced to cope in the “real” world when their funds dry up in “One Foot off the Ground,” a warmly observed ensembler that casts a quizzical eye on provincial life in contempo China. Tightly written, highly accessible sophomore outing by writer-director Chen Daming is given real flavor by its largely nonpro cast, and has none of the alienating artiness and anomie often seen in Mainland fest fare. On a level playing-field, this deserves Western distribution, with TV sales a bonus in Europe.
Pic has the same generosity toward its characters as the early films of Ang Lee (“Eat Drink Man Woman”) and Taiwan pics of Sylvia Chang (“Tonight Nobody Goes Home,”). At the very least, on a technical and writing level, it shows Chen’s first movie, caper-drama-romancer “Manhole” (2002), wasn’t a one-off.
Pic was largely shot in (and is a gentle love letter to) Kaifeng, the helmer’s own birthplace in Henan province, central China. It’s based on real stories played out by the real people (with roles switched), though reworked into a commercial feature with no hint of documentary. Helmer — who cameos as a film director in the opening sequence — also trained in an opera school, and his familiarity with theatrical types and the greasepaint life infuses the script in an informal way.
After wrapping a performance in (the fictional) Daliang, the struggling troupe, which exists in its own self-contained world presided over by company diva Sumei (Xu Fan, the cast’s only big name), is informed by its director, Dong (Yu Genyi), that its sponsorship has gone missing. At least for a while, the troupe must disband.
Three months later, everyone is barely getting by. Liu Bing (Yao Lu), who’s married to the housewifely Xiuju (Qiao Gesang Hongduo), has a photo studio, and has the hots for wannabe model Juhua (Ren Silu). Another guy, Ma San (Li Yixiang), who’s married to the troupe dresser, Dahong (Xiao Xiangyu), has a cockfighting gig.
Meanwhile, diva Sumei has moved south to the big city of Shenzhen, near Hong Kong, to find work. Her entrepreneurial husband, Sihai (Jin Hong), is selling stolen dogs.
Opening reels take care to place the characters within the environs and people of the town, which has its own sense of buried history, before developing their individual stories. It soon becomes clear that, without the binding force of the opera company, these people are headed for meltdown.
Final act has Dong announcing some sponsorship news, which immediately re-polarizes all the relationships within the troupe, prior to a whipped-up finale and warmly inclusive coda centered on the troupe’s master.
Stories set in opera companies are nothing new in Chinese cinema; but here the setting is merely a backdrop for a dramedy of manners showing how market-economy realities impact traditional social ties in today’s China. Zhang Jiarui’s recent “The Road” looked at the same problem over a much longer historical/political span; Chen’s movie is more microcosmic, a light drama about a dysfunctional group that’s a family in everything except name.
Performances blend very naturally, and individual stories are largely balanced. Only Xu’s character of the icy diva, remote at best, feels shortchanged by the script.
Tech package is smooth, with an easy flow to the editing and lensing by Yang Shu that’s richly colored without becoming gaudy. Original Chinese title is a four-character phrase referring to general turmoil; English title describes an opera-school punishment, seen briefly in the movie.