Rachmaninov’s thundering melodies overpower “Concerto of Life,” an immaculately manicured piece of nonsense centered on a piano teacher’s personal and professional travails that climaxes like a Hollywood weepie of the ’40s. Though there wasn’t a dry Chinese eye in the house at its East West fest unspooling in London, pic will be a nonstarter for most Western auds, who, for good or ill, have long lost the capacity to surrender their emotions to such fulsomely scored dramas, even when as well tooled as here.
The movie is a further example of youngish director Xia Gang — who helmed the fine, ironic comedy “Letting Go” (aka “After Separation”) some five years ago — lavishing an almost art-movie approach on pulpy material. The clash of content and style produced interesting results in the schoolgirl meller “Yesterday’s Wine” (1996), and here too there’s much to enjoy if audiences can take the leap. Once again, the script is by Xia’s wife, Meng Zhu.
Framed by a performance in Shanghai of Rakhmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 as our hero, He Jiansheng (Wang Luoyong) lies dying in hospital, story spans almost 40 years, from the late ’50s through 1993. Raised on classical music by his teacher father (Da Shichang), He just misses out on pursuing a concert career thanks to the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, when Western music was outlawed; post-C.R., he pours all his energies and frustrated ambitions into teaching a talented kid, Zhuang Lei (Miao Ningchuan). Over the years, his obsession with music has also ruined his love life, causing the girl of his dreams (Zhang Xi) to marry someone else and, later, his wife (Yan Xiaopin) to go off to the U.S.
Pic’s theme of a generation wasted by the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution is a valid one, and comes over best in the scenes between He and his group of musician friends, whose paths cross at intervals. Sequences of them covertly listening to classical music, or later sharing their disappointments and lost opportunities, are genuinely engaging, and performances are all well detailed, sans emoting. Wang is fine as the obsessive He, aging convincingly, and others, like Da as his father, Zhang as his first love and Shi Ke as a woman friend, all have their moments.
On a technical level, the pic is exceptionally well put together, with Xia and lenser Zhao Fei creating one after another lusciously lit sequence (often bathed in late-afternoon light), and long takes and direct sound allowing the actors plenty of space in their perfs.