Like so many other countries, China is a nation with a marked social divide. Rich vs poor, urban vs rural, young vs old. This dichotomy isn’t lost on Philippe Muyl, the French director of The Nightingale, a Mandarin-language film that takes the audience on a journey through China’s varied landscapes.
Guiding us along this trip are the film’s two main characters. The first is Ren Xing (Xin Yi Yang), a young girl who lives in Beijing with her well-to-do parents. Tech savvy and smart, she’s the product of her modern upbringing. Her grandfather Zhu Zhi Gen (Baotian Li) however, was not as fortunate growing up. He spent his younger years in the rural village of Yangshuo without all the current luxuries of the city. Though he now lives in Beijing, he hasn’t fully adapted to the new way of life. He prefers a quiet existence with his beloved bird, both a pet and a close companion. This is evident when he’s brought together with his granddaughter for the film’s unanticipated sojourn. With both parents traveling overseas on business, Ren Xing’s mother makes a last minute decision to leave her in the care of her grandfather. The proposition excites Zhu Zhi Gen but his granddaughter isn’t enthused. As we soon realize, they’re as compatible as oil and water.
Thankfully, Zhu Zhi Gen has already made a plan that will occupy their time together. Upon the reminder of a friend, he decides to fulfill a promise to himself to return to his village. With his bird and a headstrong granddaughter in tow, he makes the long trek to the countryside to strengthen their bond and reconnect with his roots.
As expected, the trip gets off to a rocky start. Being the privileged only child that she is, Ren Xing takes a while to get used to her new environment, using public transportation and experiencing nature. Her “fish out of water” situation leads to some particularly humorous moments, like when she screams in terror when confronted with a buffalo. Luckily, her grandfather is patient and accommodating and his familiarity with the landscape provides a comforting foundation for the pair. As they get to learn about each other’s worlds, their blossoming relationship is pleasant to watch. It helps that they are so well cast too, with Li projecting warmth and wisdom while Yang is as precocious as they come.
From a visual standpoint, the film also does a great job in juxtaposing the rural and urban settings. The editing and framing deftly express the drastic differences between both worlds. In one moment we feel the claustrophobic, hectic vibe of the bustling city and then like a breath of fresh air, we switch to the more tranquil open spaces of the country. Though the script doesn’t entirely convince you of Ren Xing’s quick change of heart, the relaxing vibe that comes across from the images makes the overall arc believable.
Indeed, the screenplay is the only let-down in this well-intentioned film. From the outset it carries itself with a level of simplicity that unfortunately limits its impact. The plot’s biggest conflicts hardly even involve the central pair. Instead, it’s the complicated relationships between Ren Xing’s parents as well as between her father and grandfather that carry most of the dramatic weight. Admittedly, the hostile dynamic of the latter does relate to Ren Xing but the severity of the circumstances doesn’t come across clearly. Even the symbolism of the titular nightingale feels undercooked. By the end of it, you’ll likely feel like you’ve seen this all before, just in a different location.
The Nightingale is a sweet but formulaic film that gets by on the potent imagery of its geographical setting and its vibrant performances. Though endearing, it struggles to distinguish itself from other “antagonists become best friends on an eventual trip” narratives. Of course, if you liked it those other times then you’ll probably appreciate this one. It’s a film the whole family can enjoy.
The Nightingale is the Chinese submission for the 2014 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Click here for reviews of other official submissions.