An outward expedition is eclipsed by a more fruitful inward journey in the engaging musical docu “Trip to Asia: The Quest for Harmony,” which depicts the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2005 Asian tour. Following 2004’s “Rhythm Is It!,” pic marks the second feature-length docu by helmer Thomas Grube to tune in to the Berlin ensemble and its electric conductor, Simon Rattle. With funding from ZDF and the BBC, international tube distribution is assured, but thanks to high concept and quality HD lensing, pic would also make a prestige item on fest circuit.
Ostensibly, pic is a document of the 126-member Berlin Philharmonic’s trip to a series of Asian cities (Beijing, Seoul, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Taipei, Tokyo) in November 2005. But the tour also acts as a road test for a select few musicians given a probationary period before being tapped as full-fledged members of the orchestra.
Except for an exhilarating section set in Taipei where the ensemble gets a rock star’s welcome, Asia is almost incidental. The title is both accurate — as it describes where they go — and misleading, as the film’s talking heads would be just as fascinating if the tour took place at the North Pole.
Rattle does fleetingly address the concept of “Asia” by remarking that Westerners who visit “must return home with a greater sense of humility or they will have missed the point,” but the film clearly has other things on its mind.
Title cards indicate each of the six visited cities, but pic is also divided by its glimpsed performances of Richard Strauss’ “Hero” (aka “Ein Heldenieben”) throughout the tour. Using the titles of the opus’ various episodes as markers (“The Hero’s Critics,” “The Hero’s Battlefield,” etc.), the pic delves into each musician’s inner tour: the requirements of camaraderie, the quest for solace, the need to relax and the importance of performing to the best of their musical ability.
The charismatic Rattle takes up substantial screen time, but many members of the ensemble also speak on camera, eloquently revealing the disparate personalities that unite to create the single entity of an orchestra.
Helming is TV-safe, but nonetheless makes for an excellent bigscreen experience. And while Asian locations like Seoul’s Insa-dong district or Taipei’s Chiang Kai-shek Cultural Center are little more than window dressing, charming details ease the passage of time. Closeups of musicians and their instruments are wisely chosen and skillfully cut together by Martin Hoffmann. HD lensing (by Anthony Dod Mantle, Rene Dame, Alberto Venzago and Stefan Ciupek) is on the money, capturing the orchestral action without compromising image quality.
At Berlin fest screening, pic clocked in at 108 minutes, but is also available in 58- and 200-minute versions.