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.
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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.