The Piano In The Factory (Gang de qin)

China (2010) Dir. Zhang Meng

In Dongbei, Northeastern China factory worker and music lover Chen (Wang Qian-Yuan) is rocked by the reappearance of his estranged wife Xiao Ju (Jang Shin-young) who demands a divorce and sole custody of their young daughter Xiao Yuan (Liu Xing-yu), a prodigious piano player. When Xiao Yuan is asked with whom she wants to stay she gives a unique answer – she will live with whoever can provide her with a piano. With a new wealthy partner on her side, Xiao Ju looks to have the strongest chance of winning forcing the penniless Chen to do everything within his power to build a piano from scratch, with the help of his friends regardless of how lawful their help may be.

There is something palpably European in this simple tale of parental love spurring one man to defy the odds – and that is not limited to the occasional use of Russian music in the soundtrack – yet it is also distinctly Chinese. Since China and Russia are both communist buddies the similarity in mood and feel of this film is not so surprising, although this could quite easily have been made in any East European country with impoverished industrial towns. According to director Zhang Meng he based this film in the early 1990’s at the point where China was transitioning to a capitalist philosophy and the working classes where seeing their livelihoods disappear before their eyes as their industries were shut down – an occurrence which will resonate on a global scale.

Chen and his motley crew of steelworkers face unemployment in the wake of their factory on the verge of being shut down, along with the last remnants of their traditional world in the form of two smokestacks being demolished. The only way they have of making extra money is through their small street band headed by Chen on the accordion and his girlfriend Shu Xian (Hailu Qin) on vocals, and by street band they literally stand anywhere in the street and play to whoever will listen. Most of the time this is no-one but these performances act as nifty and entertaining transitions between scenes and time jumps. Xiao Ju’s return, all dolled up in expensive clothes, forces Cheng to pretend he is equally affluent although Xiao Ju can see through the façade.

When Xiao Yuan lays down the rather extravagant and divisive proviso to determine her custody, Cheng runs around town to pull in favours from friends, family and acquaintances to little avail. The next step is to steal the piano from the local school which would have been a successful mission had the group been sober at the time. With a Russian instruction manual on how to build a piano in his possession Cheng falls back on the noble Chinese ethic of building something one cannot afford – even if a piano is quite the task. When the wood collected for the piano is deemed worthless, Cheng and the gang fall back on what they know and decide to build the frame out of steel.

While the piano may seem like the conceit of the film, the central thread is the relationship of Cheng, Shu Xian and the rest of the community. All of the characters have some kind of flaw and personal issues of their own that leads to fractious collisions among the suffering group of disparate personalities. From a wannabe gangster selling stolen goods to a small time butcher to a short tempered ex-thief, the community is full of people who at least have their hearts in the right place when it comes to helping Cheng, because they financially are in the same boat as he is. As one would expect there are a few casualties in the friendship stakes, most notably Cheng and Shu Xian. She is a single mother to a son who is often away at his grandmother’s yet Cheng refuses to stay over while expecting Shu Xian to marry him so he has someone to look after his elderly father. You can imagine how that goes down. When a fellow co-worker starts to pay Shu some attention Cheng sees red.

The central premise and atmosphere of the film may carry a European undertone but much of the symbolism is suited to the Chinese audience. That is not to say that is excludes foreign audiences but some aspects, especially the subtle humour, may be a little lost in translation. While more of a quirky drama than an out and out comedy, there are some instances of levity, largely visual, that are broad enough to raise a laugh from us Westerners. If anything is likely to have mass appeal in this film it will be the soundtrack that incorporates traditional Chinese folk music, classical music, Chinese pop and Russian rock – an eclectic mix that works surprisingly well.

What should be a miserable experience turns out to be a quietly joyous one. The muted colour palette that accompanies the grey, desolate images are beholden to the fading industrial town setting save for the bright red coat of Shu Xian; yet it is the energy and gregarious personalities of the cast that rescue this from any danger of being an essay in gloom and misfortune. Zhang Meng clearly had something to say but didn’t want to depress his audience in the process, proving to be a very effective way of handling a generally sobering subject.

The Piano In The Factory may not possess much in the way of mainstream appeal but for fans of the low key approach of mainland Chinese – and European – cinema this has a subtle charm about it to make for a pleasing viewing experience.