Can the old arts survive in the modern world or are they destined to fade away with the passing of time? Folk singer Su Yang is determined to preserve them, if only by assimilation, blending traditional folksong with Western rock to bring it into the modern era. While some complain that Su’s singing is inauthentic, he argues that authenticity, in that sense at least, isn’t the point. The only thing that matters is whether people like it and can feel something of themselves and of ages reflected in the ancient rhythms. 

Now a successful musician, Su is not originally from the country but moved to rural Yinchuan, Ningxia in Northwest China with his parents when he was seven. He later says it was the music of Yinchuan which touched him not because it is the greatest of cities but because it’s the one which most intersected with his life. Through his travels, Su meets up with a series of other practitioners of traditional arts mostly also from Ningxia and the surrounding area as he and they dwell on survival. 

Itinerant singer Liu Shikai makes a living playing the Sanxian, but fewer and fewer people are interested in listening while in private he feels himself lonely as a twice widowed father of three, especially as his youngest daughter has now married leaving him at home alone. Su laments something similar, reflecting that there’s no New Year for him. His festivities will consist of working and drinking, while his family can see him on TV from the comfort of their homes. Su’s brother complains endlessly about the annual Spring Gala (while watching it anyway), finding the show totally lacking in any kind of substance and becoming more boring by the year. His astute daughter, however, points out that his criticism is unfair or at least stating the obvious because the Spring Gala reflects “youth culture” which is perhaps flashy and superficial but equally is not intended to appeal to middle-aged men. Su appears on the program himself but might agree, seeing as it’s his mission statement to put a little soul back into the mainstream by bringing the rhythms of the Yellow River to contemporary society. 

Back in the country, meanwhile, folksongs are serving the same purpose they always have, expressing joy in the natural world and bringing communities together through choral solidarity. Then again, Hua’er singer Ma Fengshan, sometimes finds himself at odds with his. A member of the muslim minority, his house is filled with religious texts that he is unable to read because they are in Arabic which he doesn’t speak. Some have told him that he should spend more time on religious study, but all he wants to do is sing, while others actively oppose Hua’er for its “salacious” qualities, aware the songs can be used as a form of flirtation and convinced that they have the potential to cause marital breakdown and infidelity. In spite of everything, Ma keeps singing and is eventually joined by other members of his community wearing traditional dress to celebrate Hua’er music. 

For puppeteer Wei Zongfu, however, the future seems far less bright. Now ageing himself, he’s accepted that his descendants won’t want to succeed him and there are few people interested in learning shadowplay. The leather puppets crafted by his grandfather are so precious to Wei that he didn’t even want to take them to use in Su’s showcase of traditional arts in fear they might be damaged or stolen, opting for a safer paper play instead, but is now contemplating what’s best to do with them after he dies and if the art itself can survive when there is no one to perform it. 

That’s a problem also faced by Zhang Jinlai, the harangued head of a Qinqiang Opera troupe frequently at odds with his co-star wife who berates him for employing too many actors when they aren’t making any money. With economic factors to consider, he finds it hard to keep his troupe together and is pushed towards making “innovations” that might appeal to a younger audience but wishes to remain “authentic”. Su’s suggestion, by contrast, is that in the end you can only move forward, the old arts may have to adapt or die. Some may not approve of his modern take on the traditional, but in his own way he’s saving Hua’er song and helping to pass it on to future generations, in his own words extending the rhythms of the Yellow River to all corners of the world. 

The River in Me screens in Amsterdam on March 4/8 as part of this year’s CinemAsia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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