Cannes 2023 review: A Song Sung Blue (Geng Zihan)

“A touch of melancholy goes a long way, but the gorgeous lensing and good performances by the two principal actors ensure that the film has dramatic heft too.”

Sometimes a film can be too subtle for its own good. This is certainly not a disqualification of Geng Zihan’s debut feature A Song Sung Blue, a delicate and fragile look at unrequited love and that confusing yet exciting period of transition from adolescence to adulthood, playing in this year’s Quinzaine section. Her well-staged and impeccably shot film is one that lingers, but its intricacies require digging deep into the richly coloured fabric of the film that almost mirrors the timidity of its protagonist. A little knowledge about Chinese nursery rhymes also helps.

This might become 15-year-old Xian’s worst summer ever. Her mother, an affluent doctor, has accepted an offer to work in Africa for a year in an exchange program, so Xian (Zhou Meijun) is forced to live with her estranged father for a while. He runs a local photo studio (the film is set a decade ago, before the ascent of high-quality cameras in our phones) and has an affair with his receptionist. There is the receptionist’s daughter, a little older than Xian, who sometimes models for Xian’s dad. And that changes everything for the quiet and shy Xian. From the moment she sees the outgoing and confident Mingmei (Huang Ziqi) she is infatuated with the girl. Suddenly the blues of summer are blended with the reds of her beating heart.

And that is to be taken quite literally, because the colour scheme chosen by Geng reflects these moods in aquamarine blues interspersed with deep red accents whenever Mingmei comes into the frame. The photography, by Hao Jiayue, further accentuates the inner state of the characters and their relationship in the playful use of light, oftentimes creating a sensual, soft image when Xian and Mingmei are at their most intimate. Not sexually, because Xian is far too apprehensive for that, just as Mingmei is not interested in it, but the warmth of these images shows what both characters get out of their bond. Mingmei gets true affection from Xian that she doesn’t find anywhere else, certainly not from her relationship with a rich businessman; he can only give her material goods, but Xian can give her love. Xian in return, besides the romantic attraction that she barely acts on, gets from Mingmei a reprieve from the loneliness she feels while living with her dad.

As summer ends, so does the connection between the two girls, although it is somewhat re-established in winter at the end of the film. There is an interesting context for the moments their connection is broken and restored again. Mingmei attends a choir performance that features Xian, but she leaves halfway through. Xian doesn’t find Mingmei in the audience, and since she doesn’t see Mingmei after this there is no true farewell. The song sung by the choir is one that gives the film its Chinese title (Xiao Bai Chuan), a well-known Chinese nursery rhyme. There is also a Korean version of the song, which is sung by the Chinese-Korean Mingmei at a wedding where she and Xian connect again, and this Korean version is often used as a farewell song, thus nicely setting up Mingmei’s rendition as her actual farewell to Xian.

It is details like this that give A Song Sung Blue so much more meaning that its demure exterior belies. Full disclosure: the information about the songs came from the pressbook. And therein lies the problem for the film, as many would argue that it shouldn’t be necessary to read up on a film to fully comprehend its intricacies and nuances. A Song Sung Blue is so subtle that details like this escape most if not all viewers who are not intimately familiar with them. The subtlety extends to the depiction of Xian’s and Mingmei’s relationship, specifically the source of the former’s infatuation. The film is up for this year’s Queer Palm, but is her attraction to Mingmei queer? Is there a sexual element? A Song Sung Blue isn’t explicit about it (nor is the director in the aforementioned pressbook), so it’s all up to interpretation.

But if ambiguity and a penchant to hide the melodrama are seen as the biggest negatives, you know you have a good film on your hands. And A Song Sung Blue definitely is a good film. Geng’s approach showcases her formalist chops, and the dreamy atmosphere is perfectly in tune with the narrative. A touch of melancholy goes a long way, but the gorgeous lensing and good performances by the two principal actors ensure that the film has dramatic heft too. A very promising debut from a director to look out for.