Monday, August 15, 2011

New Dreams in a Old Landscape – Zhang Meng's "The Piano in a Factory"

Wang Qianyuan (left) as Chen, the laid-off factory worker and musician, and Qin Hailu as his girlfriend in Zhang Meng's The Piano in a Factory.

Like so many recent Chinese dramas, Zhang Meng's The Piano in a Factory (Gang de qin, 2010) is set in China's drab northeast, where the old socialist heavy industries have been shut down and the inhabitants left unemployed. Unlike many recent Chinese features, the story forsakes a miserabilist realist aesthetic for a refreshing lightness of touch and surrealistic visual edge.

Chen (played by Wang Qianyuan in his first leading role) is a former steel worker and member of his factory's band. Although steel production has ceased, he continues to play with his fellow musicians at local weddings and funerals, and occasional street performances. We're introduced to the band as they rehearse in a scrubby field beneath two massive smokestacks – the first of a string of startling images that juxtapose the locals' creative endeavours with the bleakness of their surrounds.

Musical talent runs in Chen's family, and he dreams of buying his young daughter a piano, partly to encourage her musical aspirations, and partly to stop her running off with her mother when Chen's looming divorce is finalised. Unable to scrape together the cash to purchase such an expensive instrument, Chen eventually decides to gather his former comrades and resurrect their factory to create a piano from the detritus of the town's former industry. In the ruins of their workshop Chen and his friends fire up their furnaces and attempt to forge a new dream.

It all sounds horribly cheesy, and I have to admit I put off seeing The Piano in a Factory at the Hong Kong Film Festival earlier this year in lieu of what looked like more challenging fare. But when I finally caught Zhang's film at the Melbourne Film Festival a fortnight ago I was pleasantly surprised. Zhang keeps sentimentality at bay by grounding his drama in the grim realities of post-industrial life in China's northeast on the one hand, and playfully literalising his protagonist's creative visions of a more vibrant, colourful world on the other.

At one point, for example, Chen and his cohorts, after drinking heavily, attempt to steal a piano from a local school. When they are caught mid-act the instrument is left stranded in the snow-bound school yard. While the others flee, Chen is framed lovingly caressing the keyboard as snow falls around him – a beautiful image of an artist in a cold climate that hovers between dream and reality. In another more amusing sequence, Chen's girlfriend leads a troop of celebratory flamenco dancers when the factory piano is finally finished. There is no firm line between the real and imagined in these scenes, fulfilling the surrealistic maxim of bringing the unconsciousness into everyday life.

Portrait of the artist in a cold climate – Chen caresses a stolen piano in the snow in Zhang Meng's The Piano in a Factory.

Another moment of creative whimsy in The Piano in a Factory.

As the former way of life for these socialist subjects is literally dismantled around them, Zhang attempts to envision a new way of being that avoids sinking into the morass of complete disillusionment, or embracing the cut-throat ethical vacuum of the new capitalism. The unsympathetic portrayal of Chen's former wife – who has left him for a man grown rich selling fake medicines – illustrates Zhang's disdain for China's contemporary thirst for material gain at any cost. Equally, clinging to the past appears futile, as the townsfolk's desultory efforts to preserve the totems of their former socialist existence imply. One of the local old timers, inspired by Chen's piano making efforts, leads a protest to try and halt the demolition of the factory's emblematic smokestacks, under which generations of workers have laboured. But no-one in authority in China is about to listen to a bunch of former workers about what they want for their city, and towards the end of the film the smokestacks come crashing down.

Chen, although a flawed character, represents the hope of a new way of being in the world, one that forsakes the grand national visions of the socialist era for an investment in small-scale, individualised dreams of creative fulfillment. It's an idealised notion to be sure, but Chen's quest to find personal meaning in the creativity we bring to our daily lives is one that I found quietly inspiring. After all, it's not only in China that many have lost faith in the collectivised dream of eternal progress and ever-increasing material enrichment. Zhang's evocation of way of life that doesn't rely on perpetual gain, nor seek solace in the comforting straightjacket of ideology or religion, is apposite well beyond China's borders.


  1. i really enjoy finding this blog as the asian cinema is quite fascinating to me since i am an european, thanks a lot for it!

  2. Thanks for the positive feedback!