Poignantly capturing the agony and ecstasy of the arts, Johnny Ma’s colourful ode to performing artists stars a real-life Sichuan Opera troupe struggling against modernity and bureaucracy on the outskirts of Chengdu, China.
Screened as part of NZIFF 2020
Tough, tenacious Zhao Li manages a Sichuan Opera troupe. Staging cheap and cheerful performances for an aging community in a rundown venue keeps the tradition alive. But times are changing for her theatre and its misfit outfit. Notwithstanding Zhao’s rascal husband, whose face-changing side gig at a hot pot restaurant is unfaithful to the operatic arts, or her beautiful niece, whose dreams of pop stardom see her moonlighting at a garish nightclub, the government has just notified her that the theatre is due to be demolished.
Discovering Zhao and her opera troupe in a documentary and casting them in a fictional reimagining of their artistic life, director Johnny Ma’s bittersweet drama portrays a funny, folksy company of actors holding onto precious old ways amid rapid social and economic change. The realities they face – dwindling attendance, unrelenting progress – aren’t so easily mitigated, but they can be momentarily escaped. Bursts of dreamy, fantastical sequences convey the feeling of stepping into another world – and transporting the audience along with you – that Zhao lives for as a performer. These joys and sorrows are lovingly rendered in this gentle, wistful musical film. — Tim Wong
“I first came across Zhao Li and her opera troupe back in 2013 when I watched a documentary made by a local journalist. The images were hastily captured on a handi-cam but I was completely captivated by its larger than life characters both on and off the stage… I was immediately reminded of one of my favorite Ozu films, A Story of Floating Weeds. Just like the travelling troupe in the Ozu film, for Zhao Li and her Sichuan Opera troupe, performing was not only their job but it was their way of life. To me, these characters belonged to another time period, where they would be celebrated for their craft and skills. But in modern China where traditions are disappearing faster than ever, Zhao Li and her opera troupe struggle to survive.” — director Johnny Ma
About the Filmmaker
Johnny Ma was born in Shanghai and raised in Canada. His award-winning debut feature, Old Stone (2016), won Best Canadian First Feature at the Toronto International Film Festival and Best First Feature at the Canadian Screen Awards.