Film Review: Song of The Phoenix

By Kevin Young

It’s 2014 and traditional culture values are starting to fade away. The classical Chinese instrument the suona is a symbol of the past culture. Song of The Phoenix, by the deceased director, Wu Tianming, depicts the story of a young boy Tianming, from a rural village being sent off to learn from the village’s Suona master. It’s revealed that Tianming’s father always desired to master this lucrative instrument but never had the chance and as a result is forcing his will on Tianming to learn in his place.

Initially Tianming becomes disgruntled and just wants to return home. His first training experiences included strenuous work, sucking up water from the local river through a bamboo straw for months before he lay hands on a suona. Tianming then is convinced to stay when another student Lanyu comes to learn from the Suona master too.

The two become best friends and it’s foreshadowed that Lanyu is interested in Tianming’s sister, who he will eventually elope with. Lanyu always excelled more than Tianming but when it is time for the master to choose his successor the master chooses Tianming and sends Lanyu back home in tears. Tianming was chosen over Lanyu becomes of his determination and discipline.

After being chosen, Tianming is then taught how to play the sacred Phoenix Song. This is the melody that is played at funerals to honor the dead and is cherished by all in the village.

Fast forward years later and Tianming is now a young adult playing with his own suona ensemble as the lead player. Revenue earned from playing the suona is very trifling yet Tianming doesn’t seem to mind unlike his fellow band-mates.

The event that drives Tianming’s members to leave the band is when they are playing at a village center and then they are interrupted by a western styled instrumental ensemble that comes to play too. The crowd immediately gravitates towards the sounds of the trumpet opposed to the suona. The suona band then gets into an altercation with a patron who rudely demands the suona band stop playing so he can hear the westernized sounds. Tianming’s suona which was passed down from his master gets destroyed during the brawl and it acts as the arduous realization that the suona is becoming meaningless. This scene is symbolic for what’s going on in the world as nations are becoming more modern they are forgoing their past cultural heritage.

Tianming is then tasked with dealing with his band members leaving and then the sudden news of his former master having lung cancer. The film then ends with Tianming playing the phoenix song at his master’s grave and reassuring his master he will continue on the legacy of the suona.

This film introduces audiences to the unique and unforgettable high pitch of the suona. It raises awareness of how the culture is dying out even in China as people prefer to mingle and thrive in advanced cities opposed to rural villages. Perhaps the message of the film is that we shouldn’t forget the traditional cultures of the past but honor them instead.

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