Song of the Phoenix (2013)

Director:  Wu Tianming
Cast:  Li Mincheng, Tao Zeru
Plot:  The life and trials of You Tianming, a young suona apprentice who forms his own suona troupe at a time when the traditions of suona music are declining in Chinese society. As a grown man, he has to face the painful reality that his chosen calling is no longer in tune with a modern, urbanized China.

Genre:  Drama / History / Music
Awards:  -
Runtime:  110min
Rating:  NC16 for some coarse language.

I am familiar with the suona, a sort of Chinese trumpet often used in orchestras playing grand, operatic themes.  Its sound is especially striking, cutting through the air like a flying dagger.  In this film, we see the versatility of the instrument in creating bird sounds.  We also see the suona being cast out as modernization sets in urban (and even rural) China. 

You will see and feel many things in this wonderful tearjerker of a film called Song of the Phoenix.  It is directed by Wu Tianming, who just recently passed.  This is his final film, and in a way, fitting as one because Wu is a 4th Generation Chinese filmmaker who has inspired the 5th Generation of filmmakers such as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, whom we are more familiar with.

Song of the Phoenix is about master and disciple, though it is more than that.  Zhang and Chen have made some truly great films such as Raise the Red Lantern (1991) and Farewell My Concubine (1993) respectively, now considered masters who were once “disciples” of Wu.  Like the suona master in Song of the Phoenix, Wu leaves a legacy in a medium he so loved. 

Wu’s film is about a boy who learns the suona from the village’s great master.  A solid if predictable drama that explores the relationship between master and student ensues.  Set against a backdrop of a picturesque village, the story unfolds in tandem with a parallel theme of tradition versus modernity, arguably the most critical theme in Asian cinema.  The actors are well-cast and their performances are top-notch, in particular the younger ones.

It is said that only the most honoured and revered can have “Song of the Phoenix” played at their funeral.  It is a beautiful piece.  But if there is something I didn’t like, it is Wu’s indulgence in extra melodrama in the epilogue, when the film could have ended five minutes earlier on a much more subtle, but still similarly reflective note. 

That I believe would have clearly embodied the more important concern of Song of the Phoenix – preservation of Chinese tradition and culture against globalization (or more pointedly Westernization).  Because by that time, it has overcome its master-disciple plot, transcending its narrative towards something far larger.

Verdict:  A solid drama that explores the relationship between master and disciple, tradition and modernity, and what we personally stand for in this quite excellent if predictable tearjerker.


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