A remote mountain school facing closure pins its hopes on showcasing the singing ability of the local indigenous community in Yang Chih-lin’s gentle social drama Listen Before You Sing (聽見歌 再唱, Tīngjiàn Gē Zài Chàng). Set almost entirely within its mountain village, Yang’s cheerful tale is as much about embracing an indigenous identity as it is about the consequences of rural depopulation, economic inequality, and the importance of community while also prioritising the necessity of giving children the confidence of external approval as they learn to discover their own voices. 

There are however only about 50 children left in the small rural village inhabited by the Bunun indigenous community which is why the local school is under threat of closure even though the nearest alternative is over two hours away. The headmaster laments that the reason this school in particular will be merged with another is that they have “nothing special” to offer as reason to save it. Where other schools boast professional sports players among their alumni, the best they can do is that their volleyball team is considered above average for the area. Seeing as the indigenous community is famed for its beautiful polyphonic singing, someone suggests starting a choir hoping that they may be able to gain a reprieve if they demonstrate some kind of success on a national level. Luckily, they’ve just been sent a new substitute music teacher, Yunfan (Ella Chen Chia-hwa), who agrees to provide accompaniment but they also need a conductor and no one it seems is very keen to take on the role until PE teacher Bukut (Umin Boya) reveals an unexpected musical talent. 

Just arrived from the city for a new job at a school which may be about to close, Yunfan is less than impressed with the early preparations for the choir fearing first of all they don’t have enough kids and that there aren’t enough strong singers in the group. Bukut even ropes in his volleyball team to bulk out the numbers but tells them to remain quiet and just mime rather than actually sing lest they disrupt the harmony. The other problem they face is that each of these children has their own particular circumstances with many needing to return home after school either to help with farm work or to care for elderly relatives. Many of them are living either with grandparents or more or less alone while their parents are in the city for work. Of the ones that remain, the father of two boys from the volleyball team is unhappy with them participating in the choir in the first place, viewing it as a waste of time and possibly not as a suitable activity for his sons. 

Even so, the reason for their failure in an early concert is attributed to their attempt to conform to the standard singing style of the other schools rather than embracing the uniqueness of their traditional culture leaving them as the judge puts it failing to stand out from the city kids. Though the indigenous community maintains its traditions, many of the children do not really speak Bunun, communicating with each other in Mandarin if understanding when the elders talk to them in the indigenous language, and perhaps feel insecure in their cultural identity. Only by embracing their Bunun heritage does the choir start come together, reminded that it’s important sing with your ears, picking up the harmony from those around you rather than each singing independently as a collection of individuals. 

While Bukut deals with some personal trauma concerning his musical ability and a bullying teacher, and Yunfan does her best to integrate into the indigenous community which is extremely warm and welcoming eager to share their culture with her, they eventually learn to put themselves and their fears over their job insecurity to one side while doing their best to help the children shine as they learn to find their voices through reconnecting with their indigenous roots. The school may still have to close, there may be no real answer as to how to mitigate the effects of rural depopulation or as to how to preserve traditional culture in an increasingly capitalistic society, but rather than simply giving up the children learn to embrace and be proud of their difference while learning to sing in harmony as part of a community founded on love and mutual respect.

Listen Before You Sing screens in San Diego on Oct. 29 as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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