The Grand Song Makes Its World Premiere at the 2016 Victoria Film Festival!
The musical group The Supremes and composers Charles Hart and Don Black certainly nailed the idea of how you can’t hurry love or how love changes everything well before Chinese director Chouchou Ou crafted The Grand Song. This export from Mainland China is first and foremost a love story about Nafu (Haoran Xiao) falling for Alian during a visit home in the province of Guizhou. Sadly, she has eyes for another, Qianshu. No matter how hard Natu tries, she rejects his courtship. Both are stubborn in their ways even though this man believes his love his pure. Ever since he laid eyes on her, he believes that she can be his world.
Secondly, the operatic melodies of the Dong people (located in south-eastern China) get a beautiful spotlight. This oral tradition records and houses centuries of history, folklore and culture and in 2013, CCTV correspondent Jiang Qian reported that it is in danger of becoming extinct. Fortunately, in the Q&A following this film’s world premiere at the 2016 Victoria Film Festival, Ou told audiences that she spent four years travelling around the region collecting these songs. She saw that 48 of the hundreds could become part of this movie’s musical tapestry. Only 24 were used and they had to be translated from the native Dong language to Mandarin in the film’s preproduction phase.
When all this culture’s traditions are buried in the lyrics, the translation has to be excellent. What’s heard and seen is beautiful, steeped in metaphor, and one detail not fully explored in this movie is in who passes down the music from one generation to another. When Alian spends more time evading Nafu and is hiding out, she hardly has time to teach the children of the village her repertoire. Traditionally, these people learn harmonics from an early age of four and by the time they reach adulthood, they know their people’s history. She eventually finds time in her older age, but is reluctant to accept true happiness because of incidents that caused her to reject her musical heritage. This leap of faith requires wading through a very lengthy film that captures half a century of her life.
The story evolves out of the tunes instead of the other way around. In the props needed to express the core of the Dong culture, there is a folk saying that only three treasures exist: the drum tower, the grand songs and a bridal sedan chair. All three are present in this film, and they highlight who these people are. The songs they sing make up part of the narrative, and Alian is very clear in her affection for Qianshu. When a city boy, Nafu, comes home to visit his family, she takes an instant disliking to him and in return, he finds unrequited love.
The fate that befalls them feels mildly Shakespearean. The sonnets take on a deep meaning, and some people may wonder if these sad tunes are even part of what exists in the Dong’s cultural tapestry. Typically, they are merry. If they have a song for all moods, to realize there are also sad songs will make Elton John happy. Hope seems to fade for Nafu even as the decades pass on by. He wants to be there for Alian and is patiently waiting. In this film, Qianshu never left her. If his spirit imprinted upon the lute he once played, only she can see it.
The songs from this ethnic group do not have to be fully understood to be appreciated. Just hearing how the phonetics resonate is enough. The experience of learning how sound sare organized into groups (either by gender or age instead of baritone or soprano) gets mesmerizing. When a translation is provided, the lyrics recall a mixture of Dong history and folklore. Not all of it is easily understood. Some may wonder what do bumblebees and strawberries have in common.
Study has been conducted to gain insights to this culture. In this film, the majority of the songs heard are used in courtship, and what’s told relates the depth in each individual’s heart. Nafu’s music is perhaps the most soulful. In Western context, he may well be singing the Blues. Unlike this style, what’s heard is intoned in a free verse, perhaps a cappella style. When singer is sad, they reflect a deep, brutal, honesty. Just how this film ends may well bring tears to many eyes. The emotions this movie brings are reminiscent of the tale recounted in Baz Lurhman’s Moulin Rouge. It’s best not to hedge your bets to one goal, especially when the story is simply about love. But can love last forever?