Stylish “The Piano in a Factory” offers fitful entertainment value but little narrative cohesion or momentum, playing like a series of disconnected setpieces in search of context. Chinese writer-director Zhang Meng’s sophomore feature (following 2007’s “Lucky Dog”) centers on a humble musician’s attempt to hold onto his music-prodigy daughter by securing her a piano by hook or by crook. Melancholic comedy demonstrates considerable flair for camera movement and use of music, but is too fragmentary to realize its crowdpleasing goal. Film Movement plans a limited U.S. theatrical run this summer, simultaneous with VOD release.
The economic liberalization boon is still far from reaching the northeastern city of Anshan in pic’s ill-defined early 1990s setting. Protag Chen Guilin (Wang Qian-yuan) is just one more erstwhile steelworker scraping by; he’s the accordionist in a band that plays weddings, funerals and any other gig they can get. Singer Shu Xian (Qin Hai-lu) is his on-again, off-again girlfriend.
But Chen’s main focus is on wee daughter Xiao Yuan (Liu Xing-yu), whose musical promise enables him to live out his own deferred dreams. She lacks a piano to practice on, which becomes even more of a problem when Chen’s wife, Xiao Ju (Jang Shin-yeong), returns to town. Like many residents, she moved away for a better life, finding it in a prosperous new mate.
Now she wants to divorce her “loser” husband, who reluctantly assents, but is less amenable to demands for Xiao Yuan’s custody. The tyke decides she’ll go with whichever parent can provide her with the musical instrument she needs.
Various misadventures ensue, from Chen’s fruitless attempts to borrow funds to the abortive theft of a schoolhouse piano. Finally, he decides he’ll build a grand himself, enlisting the shuttered steel factory’s resources as well as various pals to scavenge materials and construct the complicated instrument.
Treading formulaic waters a la “The Full Monty” and myriad other tales about scrappy misfits uniting for an impossible cause, pic has the essential elements for widely translatable appeal. But Meng’s screenplay seems barely there, sublimated to a directorial style that can’t compensate for lack of basic coherence and character development.
The most important relationship here, between Chen and daughter, is relegated to a few stilted scenes. Instead, Meng focuses on ornate setpieces that are pretty in a late-Fellini, self-consciously theatrical way, but play as empty pictorialism.
Pic was reportedly up to 17 minutes longer at its Toronto premiere last fall, and the subsequent paring down may have done more harm than good. Certainly there are moments here that feel completely arbitrary, especially blackout-framed glimpses of scenes that may have been better developed originally. Meng’s eventual decisions involving the piano’s completion and child custody come out of nowhere.
Adult perfs are solid if compromised by one-dimensional writing; by contrast, tech and design contributions are fussed to a fault. One witty idea utilizes Cold War-era Soviet pop as a satirical soundtrack motif.