A song of resistance soars above the towering condominiums in Johnny Ma’s To Live to Sing. The film, Ma’s sophomore feature after Old Stone, is an evocative portrait of culture at a crossroads. To Live to Sing takes the gritty realism of Ma’s debut feature a step further. Inspired by a Sichuan opera company he saw in a documentary, Ma’s film takes the members of said troupe and casts them in the drama of their reality. What follows is a fascinating explosion of the old and new, dreams and reality, and fiction and non-fiction. The compelling saga sees through these artists’ eyes an all-too-familiar fight for cultural survival. The battle between tradition and modernity in China one the librettists know well.
Zhao Xiaoli, subject of the aforementioned documentary, stars as her fictional counterpart Zhao Li. Li runs a modest opera company in a dilapidated theatre in the outskirt of Chengdu, Sichuan’s provincial capital. The troupe rehearses daily and manages to draw healthy crowds thanks to their tireless efforts. Li runs the company with a strict hand, perhaps too strict for her niece Dan Dan (Gan Guidan), the group’s star performer. Dan Dan also happens to be the youngest member of the group by several years, thus offering a sign of the changing times as the new generation forgets its old ways and tries to bring its voice to the chorus. She implores the group to modernize, but her aunt wants to hear nothing of revamping the classics. The troupe honours its ancestors, as well as its region’s cultural past, each time it takes the stage.
The Changing Face of Chengdu
The company is a cultural institution for its community. A tradition whose longevity is evident in the decaying dressings of the modest theatre house, the opera keeps Sichuan culture alive. The building, ugly and rundown as it is, nevertheless offers one of the few markers of cultural identity in the region. Everywhere the camera looks, all it sees are condos, condos, condos, and more condos. Turn one way in the community, and one notes the sights and sounds of Sichuan. However, turn the other way and Chengdu looks like any gentrified city in the east or west.
Zhao Li confronts her company’s future when the she receives notice that the theatre is scheduled for demolition. She understands what is at stake and keeps the notice secret from her colleagues. However, they already know the theatre company’s time is limited with the changing attitudes in the air. One co-worker speaks of new opportunities available through “mask switching,” which refers to the art of changing masks while performing the traditional opera. One can make far more yuan singing at buffets than on opera stages, earning tips with slights of hands that please tourists. However, this term is decidedly loaded. “Mask switching,” to Zhao Li, is the ultimate betrayal of one’s culture and heritage. It’s an act of hiding oneself beneath the guise of tradition while selling out one’s true self. It’s performative prostitution, as note the reaction shots of disgust on Zhao’s expressive face when she sees it.
Notes of the Old and the New
Ma uses arresting interplays between the old and the new as To Live to Sing explores this cultural crossroads. The film introduces this struggle from the outset when invigorating upbeat techno music opens the film with a contemporary dance troupe. Hypnotic dance beats yield the stage to Zhao Li’s company and one can’t help but feel the energy in the crowd deflate as the emcee welcomes the old ways to the stage. However, the film asserts the vivacity of the opera each time the artists take the stage.
To Live to Sing contrasts the troupe’s everyday reality with the escape they provide through music. Scenes of their daily struggles in the theatre and in the community are slice-of-life verité. Ma doesn’t hide the poverty in the area, while wall of condos, girders, and cranes that surrounds them evokes the encroaching westernization on their shrinking neighbourhood. Ugly condos, girders, and cranes pepper the scenes of everyday life. Recurring shots of a backhoe eating through walls and demolishing houses intercut the scenes. These images punctuate the erosion of culture and heritage as condos engulf the city. The theatre, however, breathes with life no matter how dusty or stale it seems.
Poetic Realism and Operatic Escapism
Ravishing sequences evoke the theatricality of the opera as the musicians sing. Exquisitely shot set pieces transport audiences to fantastical places as Zhao Li escapes her grim reality through opera. The sumptuous cinematography by Matthias Delvaux creates dreamy atmospheres. They contrast sharply with the gritty grey of the real-world settings, while the colourful costumes by Adam Lim inject the film with life. Interludes of magical realism bridge the genre-bending as Zhao Li encounters the spirits of her ancestors along her journey.
The theatricality of the film illustrates how the opera is more than just a way of life for Zhao Li. It’s a world, a history, and a life of its own. To Live to Sing evokes its genre-bending magic strongest in a climactic number in which Zhao Li wages battle against fellow performers. Doing moves that might amaze the strongest of fighters in a wuxia film, Zhao Li, done up in her best make-up and dress, will fight to the death. However, operas are often tragedies and this cinematic showdown puts her face-to-face with the burden her hold on tradition has on others.
These fantastical sequences mark a notable leap for Ma, whose earlier films favour poetic realism. Ma’s hybrid canvas uses the elements of daily life to make sense of a present reality and keep culture alive. The experience of the actors as stage performers serve the film remarkably well, as Ma’s preference for shooting wider compositions lends the neo-realist scenes of everyday life a theatricality of their own. As Zhao Li and Dan Dan, Zhao Xiaoli and Gan Guidan are naturals before the camera. Even without make-up or music, their expressive faces captivate a close-up. The stakes are real in To Live to Sing and this power resonates in each frame.
To Live to Sing is now available on home video.
(You can also watch Old Stone for free on Kanopy.)