Written and directed by Philippe Muyl.
Hebrew title: Hazamir.
In Mandarin, check with theaters for subtitle information.
The Nightingale is a beautifully photographed, well-acted parable about tradition and change in modern-day China, that will either move you to tears or strike you as overly saccharine and formulaic, depending on your tolerance for sentimental movies. Usually I go one way or the other about a movie from the beginning, but as much as I resisted the tear-jerking nature of much of the film, I found myself caught up in it, and was often charmed.
The movie tells the story of three generations of a contemporary Beijing family. Ren Quan Ying (Xiao Ran Li) and Zhu Chong Yi (Hao Qin) seem like the perfect couple. They are young and good-looking and, most of all, very successful professionals. Ren Quan is a businesswoman and Zhu Chong is an architect and the two of them fly abroad so often that they rarely see each other. Perhaps that wouldn’t be so terrible, but they rarely see their daughter, Ren Xing (Xin Yi Yang), either. She is a bright child who dutifully takes private ballet lessons and plays piano flawlessly at a lavish birthday party. But she is lonely, and spends most of her time with tutors. There have been many Chinese movies in recent years, but most have been elaborate period pieces (often with martial-arts elements), or dramas about the hardships during the Cultural Revolution. But the Cultural Revolution was over half-a-century ago, and now there is a techno-business elite, and these new Chinese bourgeoisie have rarely been seen on screen before.
But these wealthy professionals haven’t been wealthy for very long, and it turns out that Zhu Chong grew up poor in a village, far from Beijing. His father, Zhu Xi Gen (Baotian Li), a quiet, lonely widower, left the village reluctantly many years ago so he could earn money to send Zhu Chong to university. This grandfather hasn’t seen his lovely granddaughter in years, because once he took her to a bird market and lost her briefly; his son has never forgiven him. The grandfather’s only pleasure in life is caring for nightingale he has had for 18 years. He’s tormented by the fact that his wife, who loved birds, didn’t get to hear this nightingale before she died. He was so busy with his job at a Beijing factory and didn’t head back to their village when he heard she was ill, and didn’t get to see her on her deathbed.
Knowing that the nightingale is likely to die soon, the grandfather decides to go back to his village, so that the bird can at least sing to his beloved wife’s grave. Just then, Zhu Chong jets off to Tokyo and his wife must fly off to Paris to meet a client. When it turns out that their housekeeper is unavailable, Ren Quan can’t figure out what to do. Then she thinks of the grandfather, and sends her daughter on a journey with him, back to his village.
Although the outcome of this film is extremely predictable, there is something lovely about seeing the grandfather and the granddaughter bond. The farther they get from the city, the less alluring the granddaughter’s iPad becomes and the more fascinated she is with the natural world. If you’ve ever watched a child undergo that push and pull between the digital world and the beauty and excitement of the outdoors, you will relate to the rural scenes. Ren Xing is a bit spoiled, and can’t see beyond the world she has grown up in – at first. But once she gets a close look at a water buffalo, she’s never quite the same.
The performances, especially by Baotian Li as the grandfather and Xin Yi Yang as the granddaughter, are extraordinarily winning, and at times overcome the overly slick script.
But the deepest flaw in the film is that rural China is portrayed a tad too idyllically. I’m sure there is unspoiled nature in the Chinese countryside, but here it seems like a pure wonderland, with no pollution, industry or hardship anywhere. Everyone is kind and helpful. There is nothing that would hint at why this grandfather went to such great lengths to insure that his son would get an education and have a different life.