By Ed Sum (The Vintage Tempest)
On Monday, Feb 8th, the 2016 Victoria Film Festival saw the world premiere of The Grand Song. This film was made in Southwestern China and it highlights the ethnic musical traditions of the Dong, a group of people who live in the Guizhou, Hunan and Guangxi provinces. On a day which also marked BC Family Day and Chinese New Year, two traditions blended into one harmonious moment to witness live music from a very gifted pianist Ricky Chiu. As audiences are entering the theatre, he’s playing Chopin, and he is later accompanied by his instructor, Shoko Inoue in a duet.
Before the screening, the director of this film Chouchou Ou announced that she is donating $1,000 to the British Columbia based Rainbow Kids Foundation which aids underprivileged children, and Rain Li, in behalf of her company Shanghai Rain Holdings Incorporated, added $10,000. After much applause and thank you to many benefactors for helping to bring this film to this festival, a short Q&A examined a few details of the movie and Ou sang “Miss You” to audiences. The young Chiu closed off the afternoon with his rendition of “Over the Rainbow.”
In a visually gorgeous movie as this product, The Grand Song will most certainly delight audiences curious about the unique cultures located within China. The Dong are said to have been descended from the ancient Guyue people, and as for how the blood lines relate, that’s best explored by anthropologists.
Linguistically, just how each sub-ethnic community communicates also evolved. Not every culture passes on their knowledge written down. In this film, the story lies in the music, and much of the deeper meaning is buried in the ballads heard. But this movie is more about the love between two, if not three souls, destined to never be together if their stubbornness does not change. The musical group The Supremes and composers Charles Hart and Don Black certainly nailed the idea of how you can’t hurry love or how love changes everything well before Ou crafted this film. Nafu (Haoran Xiao) is a well-educated man who decides to come home to see his family. In a less than spectacular fashion, he meets Alain (Jia Wang), a local woman, and he instantly declares his love for her. No matter how hard he tries, she rejects his courtship and declares her affection is for another young man, Qianshu (Li An Wei).
In this Dong culture, when two people are courting, they will be making literal music together. They will be enchanting each other with their songs, baring their soul, and eventually, marriage will soon follow. Nafu tries to win Alain’s heart by serenading her from outside her window but perhaps he’s forgetting what’s native to his heritage instead of taking on a modern approach. When he’s known as the rich boy of the village — Alain is not swayed by his money or good looks — perhaps he has lost touch with his past. As the music has to get passed down from one generation to another, a skip is made. For Alain, she hardly has time for either Nafu or the youths. Maybe she does in her old age, but the movie suggests she’s rejected the old ways and that finally gives this movie a plot to worry about — is this tradition going to fade? Even at an advanced stage in her life, she evades opportunities to be merry and she still dodges him every time he makes his presence known. Some moments are funny, but it’s also heartbreaking. He’s like Buzz Lightyear — Never give up. Never surrender! This attitude nearly breaks him.
There is a folk saying the Dong culture has three treasures: drum tower, grand songs and a bridal sedan chair. All three are present in this film, and they highlight who these people are. If this man followed tradition, he would be courting her near or within the tower. The beating heart is usually represented by the drum, but no music is made here. When she’s with Qianshu, what’s heard is beautiful and the two share a wonderful on-screen chemistry.
Studies have been conducted exploring this culture. In this film, the majority of the songs are used in courtship, and what’s told relates what’s deep in each individual’s heart. Nafu’s music is perhaps the most soulful. In Western context, he may well be singing the Blues. Unlike this style, what’s heard is intoned in a free verse, perhaps a cappella style. In the catalog of thousands of songs collected by Ou, she narrowed the list down to 48 tunes. Half of that was used in this film. When heard in its native dialect, they are truly lyrical when celebrating the love for life. When a singer is sad, they reflect a brutal honesty. Just how this film ends may well bring tears to many eyes because the feelings this movie brings is reminiscent of Baz Lurhman’s Moulin Rouge. It’s best not to hedge your bets to one goal, especially when the story is simply about love. But can that go on forever? Just how long does one individual have to wait? The music the Dong people sing are precious, and thanks to this film, this introduction to a world stage is likely to preserve this culture for all time.