By: Jolie Featherstone
Johnny Ma’s latest feature film, To Live To Sing, is an ethereal love letter to traditional Sichuan opera troupes and to the indefatigable drive of artists protecting their vision, legacy, and family.
To Live To Sing transports us to the outskirts of modern-day Chengdu, China where older buildings are being demolished in service of economic “progress.” Among these buildings is a sacred place – a theatre that is also the home to a traditional Sichuan opera troupe. The troupe is led by Zhao Li who is dedicated to the art of the Sichuan opera, her tight-knit troupe, and her audience regulars. Indeed, the audience for each show is usually comprised of the same people: the elders of the community who devotedly attend each performance.
When Zhao Li receives a notice that the theatre is set to be demolished, she hides this information from the troupe and takes matters into her own hands. At the same time, she is struggling to patch up fissures appearing amongst the troupe as some of the members contemplate leaving to seek out more lucrative job opportunities.
As Zhao Li quietly goes into battle to defend her beloved theatre, she also must face her underlying fears of the troupe’s disbanding. As the schedule demolition date draws nearer, the magic of the opera and its fantastical characters begin to seep into everyday life – guiding Zhao Li in ways she could not predict.
Johnny Ma was inspired to tell this story after seeing a documentary about Zhao Li’s opera troupe. According to Ma: “I knew right away that if I was ever going to make a fictional film out of these people, the only way to do it would be with the real life opera members I saw in the doc.” Quite wonderfully, the chemistry and closeness of the troupe feels wholly organic and easy. One feels completely drawn into this troupe that exists more like a family.
The skillful use of lighting and gorgeous colour guides the audience along Zhao Li’s journey. Certain scenes regale the eyes with an ultra-saturated, painterly colour reminiscent of Powell and Pressburger films. The naked scenes of demolition awake us from the reverie and harshly bring us back to the tough reality faced by this troupe. There is a devastating shot of the stage, bathed in red and transformed by a live opera performance, framed by bricks and dust and workers hammering away.
The film feels slow to start, but it retains its allure through the magnetic performance of Zhao Li and the gorgeous visuals of the opera. Ma brings the film to an exquisite crescendo in a spellbinding and striking scene that stuns with the majesty of the opera and Zhao Xiaoli’s (as Zhao Li) magnetic performance.
To Live To Sing is a moving film that offers an intimate look into an ancient and significant art form that is slowly deteriorating at the hands of the bureaucratic powers that be in favour of modern pop-cultural pleasures. The film’s magic lies in its love and respect for the intricate art of the Sichuan opera, while gently imbuing the whimsy of the opera into the unfiltered, slice-of-life scenes of a family on the brink of major change.
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