Stammering Ballad (黃河尕謠, Zhang Nan, 2018)

Stammering ballad poster“We all live our lives in silence” according to the subject of Zhang Nan’s Stammering Ballad (黃河尕謠, Huáng  Gǎ Yáo). A love song to a disappearing rural landscape, Zhang’s beautifully composed documentary follows an aspiring folksinger whose dreams of fame have taken him away from the land he loves so much as he tries to ensure the survival of traditional village culture by singing in the cities.

A college dropout, Zhang Gasong embraced his love of folk music while too embarrassed to return home. Honing his craft as he goes, he’s been travelling around the country for the last seven years going wherever someone wants to hear him play – though occasionally they might have to front him the train money to help him get there. Gasong is, it has to be said, an eccentric young man. A former bandmate laments Gasong’s “poor social skills” which led to the band’s breakup, while also remaining exasperated that Gasong just up and left, disappearing for years on end without a word, with little regard for their friendship. Still, he seems to have forgiven him enough to agree to play for Gasong’s big shot on China’s Got Talent.

China’s Got Talent might seem like a left field move for a traditional folk musician, but Gasong has his eyes on the prize. He wants to be the kind of star where everything gets done for him and all he has to do is play, but for the moment he’s busy touring small music venues and festivals singing for his supper and hoping the youth of China who have, like himself, abandoned their village homes for the convenience of city life, will eventually re-embrace the song of the earth.

That aside, Gasong has a conflicted attachment to the pastoral past. He always hated farming and ironically claims to loathe the familiar smell of wheat germ and freshly tilled soil, not to mention the physical toll of of the work. Nevertheless he maintains an attachment to the landscape and views it almost as an inheritance of which he has been robbed by the modern China. The place where he grew up is now largely in ruins after having been relocated to avoid a drought, and though he bitterly misses the familiar black donkey that once lived in the village he has to remember that it’s long been sold. A traveller now himself, Gasong is losing connection with his land and with his family, but desperately clinging to his ancestral legacy through the medium of song.

In the end, China’s Got Talent didn’t really get Gasong, but perhaps that’s for the best. Cameramen expecting disappointment found only relief when they came to interview the band afterwards. Though it’s a shame that the performance will never be aired, and the beautiful rural folksong will not be heard by the millions of Chinese viewers almost certainly tuning in for more energetic fare, Gasong remains undaunted. Wandering off once again he loses touch with his band members and resumes his nomadic travels as an itinerant musician. The grand irony is that these songs, so intrinsically linked with place, are themselves travelling and echoing in new locations looking for new pastures in which to take root as the modern China flattens mountains to build factories and moves families on from their lands while sending its young into the cities all alone.

Gasong, who has stammered since childhood, has found his voice through music though often struggles to make that voice heard in boisterous modern society. Like many of his generation he too has realised he cannot stay in his pastoral paradise, but has also discovered that the city doesn’t suit him. Most at home in the wide open spaces of his native Gansu, Gasong roams the land singing the song of the soil as he goes in the hope that it will one day echo and send the sound of home all around the world.


Stammering Ballad screens as part of the 2019 Chinese Visual Festival at King’s College London on 5th May, 1pm.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Lacuna (醉后一夜, Derek Tsang & Jimmy Wan, 2012)

lacunaWaking up in a strange place with absolutely no recollection of how you got there is bad enough. Waking up next to a total stranger is another degree of awkward. Waking up not in someone else’s apartment but in a department store furniture showroom is another kind of problem entirely (let’s hope the CCTV cameras were on the blink, eh?). This improbable situation is exactly what has befallen two lonely Beijinger’s in Derek Tsang and Jimmy Wan’s elegantly constructed romantic comedy meets procedural, Lacuna (醉后一夜, Zuì Hòu Yīyè). An extreme number of unexpected events is required to bring these two perfectly matched souls together, but the love gods were smiling on this particular night and, once the booze has worn off, romance looks set to bloom .

Shen Wei (Shawn Yue) and Tong Xin (Zhang Jingchu) wake up undressed and with their arms around each other, but with no recollection of what exactly led them to this position. Awkwardly dressing and getting ready to part ways as quickly as possible, the pair are stunned to realise they’re trapped in a department store. Things get weirder when Shen Wei gets back to his hotel room to find it full of passed out revellers before arriving at work where his co-workers have a lot of questions about the previous night’s activities which seem to have been live blogged on the Weibo account of a well known actress.

Meanwhile, Tong Xin has returned home to feed her cat, but remembers she was carrying a large amount of money that her boss wanted her to give to a woman in a bar, and she can’t remember what happened to it. Shen Wei has also forgotten where he parked his car but a more serious problem occurs when he’s contacted by the police who are very keen for both Shen Wei and his “girlfriend” to come and pick up the “pet” they were so keen to find the night before. Luckily Tong Xin’s Weibo account is linked on the photos so he manages to get in touch with her in the hope that she can help him figure out what on earth happened last night.

Rom-coms thrive on coincidences, but luckily for Shen Wei and Tong Xin, the stars have aligned to allow them to find each other in midst of the busy Beijing nightlife despite the fact that neither of them seem the type to be particular frequenters of it. Both are, in different ways, a little lost. Shen Wei is a mild mannered Hong Konger slightly adrift in the mainland capital, whereas Tong Xin has just gone through a (seemingly amicable but perhaps painful) breakup and is also at a crisis point in her unsatisfying career which has her playing errand girl to a hack director with a scandal hanging over his head in the form of a affair gone sour with the aforementioned Weibo-ing actress – Qiqi (Mia Yam).

An anonymous night of passion is an out of character surprise for both of these otherwise straight laced, serious minded city dwellers. Both hugely embarrassed and a little bit stunned, reconnecting was never a likely prospect. Forced to get together to try and figure out their respective problems resulting from the previous night’s activities, the pair get the chance to relive their initial whirlwind romance, perhaps leading to something deeper and more substantial than just a mad one night stand. Gradually piecing together the details including random lamas and licking bull frogs with gangsters, it’s clear the pair have shared a very strange night together though its conclusion in a romantic “dream” apartment helped to showcase bashful Shen Wei’s romantic side and if all of this really does go somewhere they’ll have a heck of a story to tell the grandkids.

The “lacuna” in the their memories wasn’t the only thing missing in their lives, though it has helped each to perhaps find something to plug some of those empty spaces. Both Shen Wei and Tong Xin are left looking for something literal, but also seeking something less tangible which may have just found them thanks to the improbable coincidence of both “enjoying” an out of character night of heavy drinking, brought together by their mutual inability to hold their drink. Elegantly photographed with its series of disparate locations from upscale nightclubs to grungy dive bars and dusty construction sites, Lacuna’s whimsical approach somehow makes all of this craziness seem perfectly plausible adding to the sweet and heartfelt tone and restoring faith in playful, genuine romance even in a busy and increasingly disconnected capital.


Original trailer (no subtitles)