By Don Simpson | December 5, 2011
Director: Zhang Meng
Writer: Zhang Meng
Starring: Wang Qian-Yuan, Qin Hai-Lu, Guo Yong-Zhen, Jang Shin-Yeong, Liu Qian, Liu Xing-Yu, Luo Er-Yang, Tian-Yu
Guilin (Wang Qian-Yuan) used to work at the local state-run steel factory, but now that the factory has shut down he plays accordion in a band with a bunch of his friends. On the verge of a divorce, Guilin wants custody of their daughter, Xiao (Jang Shin-Yeong); but the question remains, will Xiao want to stay with Guilin in his humble apartment or go to live with her mother and much wealthier boyfriend? An aspiring pianist, Xiao decides that she will reside with whichever parent can provide her with a piano at home — being that the piano is Xiao’s primary opportunity for a successful future, her parents do not deny the significance of this request. With no expendable income, however, Guilin’s only hope to retain custody of Xiao is to convince his misfit friends to help him construct a piano from scratch.
Writer-director Zhang Meng’s The Piano in a Factory dutifully discusses the expectations and responsibilities of friends and family, the importance of teamwork, and the uplifting power of music; but it also showcases the changing roles and attitudes of women in 1990s China. Other than a few glimpses of Guilin’s wife, his girlfriend (Qin Hai-Lu) is the only woman in the film; but we sense that both women are independent and determined to achieve what is best for them. Guilin’s girlfriend is a single mother and a skilled vocalist; and having been through one failed marriage already, she is wary that such a commitment would render her a full-time caregiver.
Scenes of drunken shenanigans and endless chases appear during absurd musical interludes that channel the Keystone Kops, but The Piano in a Factory always remains firmly grounded in the harsh reality of a China that in the early 1990s was evolving from an industrial era into a capitalist one. This immense shift left towns that were developed around the iconic smokestacks of industrialization ravaged by unemployment. The poor blue collar population of these areas were forced to change their lives as they floundered in their searches for new ways to make enough income in order to survive. In The Piano in a Factory, the characters come together to help Guilin provide for his daughter; in doing so they also realize the enjoyment of expressing themselves in their work. Basically, the building of the piano motivates them to stop floundering around and to get back on meaningful career paths.
A darling of the film festival circuit, The Piano in a Factory will be released in the United States on DVD by Film Movement in December 2011.