City Of Rock (Feng ren ji yue dui)
China (2017) Dir. Da Peng
Are you ready to rock? It’s not a crime to want to make a racket with electric guitars and pounding drums though some people still seem to think it is, which is amusing when you consider some of the great careers many musicians have had out of it. And even if the giddy heights of The Stones or The Beatles is out of your reach, it is still okay to dream.
The Chinese principality of Ji’an has given itself the epithet City Of Rock, after their most famous sons, rock band Broken Guitar, played a legendary homecoming concert, which was marked by the construction of a giant statue of Les Paul guitar in the middle of the town. Unfortunately, nostalgia and sentiment are no match for money as a wealthy property developer wants to demolish the statue to make room for modern buildings.
One devoted Broken Guitar fan and Ji’an resident is garage owner Hu Liang (Qiao Shan), who wants to stop the demolition by organising a benefit concert to galvanise local support in saving this landmark. Liang contacts Beijing based manager and member of Broken Guitar when they split up, Cheng Gong (Da Peng), to help organise the concert, though Liang has no band or songs, but Cheng is in debt and agrees to take on the gig.
It seems rather bold to make about freedom of speech and daring to dream in a country under communist rule but then again who better to comment on the subject that those directly affected by it? To be frank, I highly doubt director and star Da Peng had such lofty political aspirations when he made City Of Rock, though as a paean to the dreamers of the world going for it, his intentions are clearer.
Realistically, there is not much difference between this film and such Hollywood fare as School Of Rock et al, social misfits with high musical ambitions being told not to bother by those around them. Obviously, the geographical setting is the most notable point of separation between these films but the narrative and general content could easily be transposed across either continent.
Since it is likely most people’s knowledge of Chinese music will begin and end with either Cantopop or the Peking Opera, the idea of China having healthy heavy rock movement might come as a surprise, making this film educational if anything. But with this being a comedy, Da Peng resorts to the usual clichés in portraying the rockers – Broken Guitar being long haired, leather jacket/bandana wearing, devil horn throwing screamers, with the modern equivalent not too far removed from this, but again this isn’t really about credibility.
Da Peng might just be a legit rock fan if the satirical barbs he throws at the disposable boyband pop are any indication. At the start of the film, Cheng is managing a rock trio who are going nowhere and wasting all of his money, having turned to an investor to help fund their relaunch as K-Pop inspired boy band. However, the investor blows the promised money on cosmetic surgery leaving Cheng no choice but to accept Liang’s offer with the 100,000 RMB upfront payment, which is all the money he has.
Auditions to form a band brings just two people (well, three – one wanted his car fixed) – punky female bassist Ding Jianguo (Na Zha) and Taiwan drummer Explosive (Li Hongqi), whilst acquaintances of Liang round out the group, gynaecologist Yang Shuangshu (Han Tongsheng) on guitar and eight-year-old keyboardist Qiao Meixi (Qu Junxi). This seems a daft addition but provides some great comedy with Meixi’s martial artist mother (Dai Lele) denying her daughter’s musical ambitions.
Meixi is not alone in defying opposition in joining the band – Jianguo’s father (Wang Jinsong), who happens to be the property developer at the centre of this dispute, wants the concert stopped and Jianguo back as Vice President of his company. Jianguo also has a distant admirer in mega rich twerp Zhang Facai (Yu Yang), determined to ruin the band under the pretence of mistaking Jianguo and Liang as an item.
Eventually choosing the name Sewing Machine, the group set about rehearsing, writing songs, and performing small shows at silly places like a yoga club or retirement home to hone their chemistry. There isn’t a lot more to the basic plot as a story like this will always be a slave to convention which is also exposed in the abovementioned subplots, so whilst the outcome is ultimately predictable, it is bearable within the remit of a typical feel good movie.
Befitting the light and frothy mood of the film, the songs are catchy, pop rock anthems, bristling with amiable energy, though the big number reserved for the climactic concert is naturally a poignant power ballad. In reaffirming the City Of Rock moniker, the concert closes with a mass performance in which countless guitarist, bassist and drummers(!) join in with the band, many presumably Chinese music stars, joining the others making cameos throughout the film.
Not content with writing and directing, Da Peng is front and centre on screen as Cheng but lets his co-stars shine just as much, notably Qiao Shan as the chubby dream chaser Liang whose antics may grate but never goes too far. Na Zha may seem like the latest Fan BingBing look-a-like to hit the screen but has a steely presence of her own as the token eye candy, though it is hard to ignore cute as a button Qu Junxi as Meixi.
For Chinese cinema City Of Rock might be a novelty that for the rest of us is old news, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyed as a slice of safe but well-meaning cinematic confection with a few treats for the ears too. The 117-minute run time is not punishing but isn’t necessary either, otherwise there is nothing to be offended or upset about.
Conclusion – for those about to rock, we salute you!