You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘To Live to Sing’

A Sichuan Opera troupe are faced with the demolition of its premises and disbandment in Johnny Ma's fond but formless drama.

Johnny Ma
Zhao Xiaoli, Gan Guidan, Yan Xihu. (Mandarin dialogue)

Running time: 105 MIN.

After his taut, impressive debut “Old Stone” which tracked with nightmarish relentlessness the high cost of compassion in modern urban China, Canadian-Chinese director Johnny Ma loosens his grip a little to deliver a softer, if not necessarily less pessimistic examination of the failing fortunes of a regional Sichuan Opera troupe. “To Live to Sing” is baggier than its predecessor and less immediately accessible given that it loses “Old Stone’s” ratcheting stakes in favor of slowly dwindling hopes. But it is elevated by a beautifully compact and empathetic performance from Zhao Xiaoli, leader of the real-life opera group, whose members play fictionalized versions of themselves here. Chinese opera can seem beholden to a performance and storytelling tradition almost entirely alien to Western eyes, yet Zhao makes the transition from heavily painted, ornamented, and arcanely codified stage performer to subtle, natural, and wholly heartbreaking screen presence with exceptional grace.

Zhao plays Zhao Li, longstanding manager of the Jinli Sichuan Opera Group, a motley crew of performers mostly a little past their prime who’ve knocked around together so long their camaraderie is like that of a close-knit family: They scratch their underarms and spit and kvetch, they laugh and live and sing. Indeed the familial connection is literally true for the youngest member, Dan Dan (Gan Guidan), a pretty young woman whose youth, elegance, and singing talent make her the star of the show and the great hope for the future of the Jinli troupe. Dan Dan is Zhao Li’s niece, but one glimpse of the older woman’s face, suffused with such painful tenderness and love as she watches the girl apply her intricate makeup, tells us instantly that their relationship is more like mother and daughter.

The troupe operates out of a ramshackle theater at which the only regulars are old-timers who don’t have anywhere else to go. But even this humble home is on borrowed time: The development signaled by omnipresent rumbling JCBs is encroaching, and the building is scheduled for demolition. Zhao, her face tightly masked with worry, tries to protect the troupe from this knowledge as she desperately searches for a solution, but though they bicker and joke as amicably as ever, they cannot but notice the half-empty houses they play to each night. Secretly, shamefacedly, many of them are making alternate plans.

As Zhao’s hopes of reprieve recede, her brightly colored vocation seems to seep a little into her gray, unlovely reality. A costumed dwarf character appears and leads her to various venues, first to a nightclub where a skimpily clad Dan Dan is performing, then to a restaurant where Zhao overhears her partner (Yan Xihu) negotiate a new job performing “face-changing” (a sleight-of-hand skill that is one of Sichuan Opera’s unique features) for the customers of a hot-pot restaurant. It’s hard to tell which is the greater betrayal.

But the meaning of these surreal interludes is also a little hard to parse, as the intentions of this tricky little Pied Piper character are unclear: Is he trying to help Zhao by exposing these hidden secrets, or is he trying to convince her of the futility of holding back the tide? This lack of clarity, as well as a slackness in tone and a realist cast to DP Matthias Delvaux’s imagery that can flirt with blandness at times, conspire to make the film feel less urgent and less sculpted than it could. 105 minutes is not that long, but it would be more effective if this somewhat shapeless story took more of a cue from traditional Chinese operatic forms in which every gesture has particular, economical significance.

The parallel between the classic form’s waning relevance to younger generations, and the widespread fear that China’s determined embrace of its “economic miracle” is causing a loss of cultural identity is heavily underlined. And the existence of one law for the poor and another for the rich is touched on as Zhao prepares a one-night-only big show as a last-ditch effort to catch the eye of a local bigwig who could perhaps forestall the demolition. These soapy moments could be subtler and the film as a whole more pacy, but even at its most sluggish, Zhao Xiaoli’s performance can conduct us to the anxious heart of a scene and make us feel at least a shadow of her character’s extinction-level sense of loss. In a dreamlike flourish, the members of the troupe appear in costume amid piles of rubble, looking like exotic birds of an endangered species, twirling their plumage one last time and singing their final goodbyes to the ruined habitat being eroded from under their feet.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'To Live to Sing'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Directors' Fortnight), May 20, 2019. Running time: 105 MINS. (Original title: "Huo Zhe Chang Zhe")

Production: (China-France) A Shenzhen Ming Communication, Image X Prods., Shanghai Tongyue Industrial Co., House on Fire production. (Int'l sales: Films Boutique, Berlin.) Producers: Wu Xianjian, Jing Wang, Vincent Wang. Executive producer: Deng Jie.

Crew: Director, screenplay: Johnny Ma. Camera (color, widescreen): Matthias Delvaux. Editor: Ana Godoy. Music: Jongho Yo, Jimin Kim.

With: Zhao Xiaoli, Gan Guidan, Yan Xihu. (Mandarin dialogue)

More Film

  • Angelina Jolie is Maleficent in Disney’s

    Box Office: 'Maleficent: Mistress of Evil' Dominates With Soft $36 Million

    Five years after Angelina Jolie’s “Maleficent” cast a spell over the box office, the villainous enchantress has returned to the top of domestic charts. Disney’s “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil,” a sequel to 2014’s fantasy adventure based on the “Sleeping Beauty” sorceress, debuted to a disappointing $36 million from 2,790 North American theaters, nearly half of [...]

  • MIA Wrap

    Rome MIA Market Wraps With Stronger U.S. Presence, Boosts Italy's Industry Standing

    Rome’s MIA market for TV series, feature films and documentaries wrapped positively Sunday with organizers boasting a bump in attendance just as some 2,500 executives departed in an upbeat mood after four days of dealmaking and presentations of mostly European fresh product, which elevated Italy’s global standing in the industry, especially within the TV sector. [...]

  • Film Republic Adds Further Sales for

    Film Republic Inks Further Deals for 'God of the Piano' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Sales agent Film Republic has closed further territory sales on “God of the Piano.” Film Movement previously picked up North American rights to the film, as reported exclusively by Variety. Mont Blanc Cinema has taken the rights for Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Paraguay. Limelight Distribution is looking after the Australian and New Zealand releases, Hualu [...]

  • ‘Bears Famous Invasion’s Lorenzo Mattotti Brings

    Lorenzo Mattotti on MIA Title ‘Bears Famous Invasion of Sicily’

    Illustrator Lorenzo Mattotti is no stranger to film festivals. The artist – a long-time New Yorker cover artist and onetime Lou Reed and Michelangelo Antonioni collaborator – has designed posters for past editions of Venice and Cannes, and has contributed to films that played in Toronto and Rome. This year, however, he experienced the festival [...]

  • Dreamworks Abominable

    'Abominable' Release in Malaysia Abandoned

    Plans to release the increasingly controversial Chinese-U.S. co-produced animation film “Abominable” in Malaysia have been dropped after the distributor said that it would not be cut to cater to political sensitivities. The film includes a scene which depicts a map showing the South China Sea and the so called “nine-dash line” that China uses to [...]

  • Hui He

    RAI Com Takes World Sales on Italy/China Doc About Star Soprano Hui He (EXCLUSIVE)

    Italy’s RAI Com has taken world sales on high-profile documentary “Hui He, the Soprano From the Silk Road,” which is about the personal and artistic journey of one of the world’s leading sopranos and also marks a milestone Italian-Chinese co-production. Hui He was born and trained as a singer in the Chinese city of Xi’an, [...]

  • Bruce Springsteen arrives for the New

    Bruce Springsteen Returns to NJ Hometown for Surprise 'Western Stars' Introduction

    Bruce Springsteen returned to his hometown of Freehold, New Jersey to offer a surprise introduction to the first public multiplex viewing of his concert/documentary film, “Western Stars.” Dressed simply in a brown jacket, Springsteen took a moment to say a few words at the AMC Freehold 14 movie theater on Saturday night. “We knew we [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content