Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes: Our Review of ‘To Live To Sing’

Posted in Movies, VOD/iTunes/DigitalDownload by - March 23, 2020
Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes: Our Review of ‘To Live To Sing’

Johnny Ma’s To Live To Sing centers on Zhao Li (Ziao Xiaoli), trying to keep her neighborhood opera company afloat despite of breaches from all ends. One of those breaches come from her niece Dan Dan (Gan Guidan), who keeps delaying what seems like an important conversation. She has a feeling, of course, that Dan Dan wants to leave the troupe, which spells trouble since the latter draws their old audiences in. The other actors are also asking her about the demolition work throughout Sichuan. Their theater is next on the chopping block, but she’s thinking of ways to survive.

Ma’s previous work Old Stone was an attack on the Chinese healthcare system. And yes this story is about how both governments and the marketplace are destroying community spaces. These spaces, by the way, are temporarily unavailable to us and are the subject or current nostalgia. But not every scene in this movie serves as a critique on those systems. Sometimes the movie breathes, showing these empty spaces, letting the sets speak for themselves. An old arcade game finds itself in the theater or one of its backrooms, objects together making up a palimpsest of anachronisms. Despite championing regional opera, the movie shows us that traditional art spaces no longer exist. Modernity intrudes upon modernity, changing as gradually as nature does.

The story does go into formula mode, as Zhao Li discovers what her troupe underlings are up to. She sees Dan Dan singing elsewhere. Half an hour after that scene, we see her walk into a restaurant where mask changers perform. She expects one of the performers to be her partner Lao Wu (Yan Zihu), but she instead finds him doing something just as bad. The movie employs shaky cam, an obvious way of showing her life in chaos. But first time actress Zhao Xiaoli shows generations worth of emotions within those frames. And even with these betrayals there’s still the tension of whether or not her actors will return.

Ma further puts Zhao Xiaoli through the ringer with his fantasy sequences, hinting at the director’s ambition. And despite some flaws, both he and Zhao Xiaoli deliver. Most fantasy scenes need sets of effects to work, but there are shots where he uses the human face or some costume details to transport us to another time. While some scenes are funny and others tragic, he uses symbols to show moral ambiguity. In one scene, Zhao Li spears an imperial officer only for him to transfigure. That change deserves a big screen treatment but it’s equally effective at home. Most social commentary films have good guys and bad, but Ma shows a maturity that we need in these times.

To Live To Sing is available on iTunes starting March 24th. I hope that watching this might shed on a country that, although imperfect, deserves better than being American media’s punching bag. To paraphrase Roger Ebert, cinema is empathy.

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While Paolo Kagaoan is not taking long walks in shrubbed areas, he occasionally watch movies and write about them. His credentials are as follows: he has a double major in English and Art History. This means that, for example, he will gush at the art direction in the Amityville house and will want to live there, which is a terrible idea because that house has ghosts. Follow him @paolokagaoan on Instagram but not while you're working.
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