The power of music and a mother’s love for her gifted child are the currents driving “The Star and the Sea,” a well-appointed if very old-fashioned meller charting the impoverished childhood of early 20th-century Chinese composer Xiang Xinghai. First feature in a decade by veteran husband-and-wife team Li Qiankuan and Xiao Guiyun has the broad emotional brushstrokes to connect with mature auds in Chinese-lingo territories but, given that the story ends when Xiang is 12 years old, the pic lacks the subtlety and scope to make a splash in Western markets. “Star” world preemed at the Hawaii fest; domestic release details are pending.
Known in China as “The People’s Composer,” Xinghai died in 1945 at the age of 40 and is best remembered for his “Yellow River Cantata,” a famous source of inspiration for Chinese patriots during the Sino-Japanese War. Story is a natural fit for Li and Xiao, whose previous collaborations, including “Century Dream” (1999) and “The Birth of New China” (1989), are concerned mostly with matters of national pride.
Opening finds widow Huang Suying (Vivian Hsu) bringing up Xinghai (Su Jiahang) in the Portuguese colony of Macau just prior to the 1911 Chinese Revolution. Members of the Tanka (boat people) underclass, forbidden by an ancient law to set up house on dry land, and what little education Xinghai receives is marred by severe bullying.
But the lad possesses an exceptional ear for music and soon masters a bamboo flute given to him by his grandfather, Huang Jincun (Wang Shijun). Sprinkled among scenes depicting his mother fending off sleazy moneybags Chen Jincai (Shi Xianfu) and the aftermath of his grandfather’s death in a maritime accident, Xinghai manages to impress Anthony (Oleg Vedernikov), a Portuguese concert violinist who gives the boy his first music lessons.
To this point, the narrative is a symphony of hardship with the odd note of hope. But at the two-thirds mark, the story jumps ahead four years to Singapore, and the narrative formula reverses. Now a housemaid to kindhearted businessman Zeng Rushan (Li Fazeng), Suying has enrolled Xinghai (now played by Wang Chengyang) at a good school where his talent catches the eye of piano teacher Xiao Youmei (Alec Su).
By way of standard sequences in which Xinghai performs triumphantly under trying conditions, the pic’s closing chapters are sure to moisten the eyes of many, though viewers with a high barrier to emotional manipulation might be immune.
Taiwanese thesp-popster Hsu anchors the proceedings with a dignified performance, and talented discovery Su Jiahang is terrific as the irrepressible younger Xinghai. Other perfs are fine.
Macau government authorities that ponied up coin for the production will be pleased by Song Xiaofei’s attractive widescreen lensing of the former colony’s historic sites. First-class interior decoration and costume design are the other standouts in a pro tech package.