“The Nightingale,” not to be confused with a 2019 gratuitously violent movie of the same title, was China’s Academy Award entry for 2014 best foreign film. This gentle film is a collaboration of the French director and writer, Philippe Muyl, and a Chinese cast, with other international contributions. It is an elegy of post-modern vices of China’s emerging urban middle class and an ode to traditional virtues of Chinese village life.
The center of this poignant story is an aging grandfather (Li Xiaoran) who, keeping a promise to his deceased wife, returns to his ancestral village with his aging nightingale so it can sing at her grave. His granddaughter, Ren Xing (Yand Xinyi), tags along for the journey. The girl’s parents, with conflicting work schedules, reluctantly leave their daughter in the old man’s care. Individualism of urbanization and fragmented demands of globalization have rendered an egregious strain on their marriage and relationships. The thinly veiled subtext is glaring – the one child policy of modern China has resulted in the next neglected and selfish generations.
Ren Xing is a self-absorbed, self-centered and self-confident spoiled brat. When she meets up with her grandfather, she addresses him not according to his respected title. She rudely ignores him while engrossed in her e-tablet. At the train’s dining car, she refuses to eat because she doesn’t feel like it but in the middle of the night she wakes him screaming for food. She notices his “ancient” mobile phone, ridicules him, grabs it and throws it away. She pretends ignorance, illness and deafness to deny his wishes.
These conflicted moments between generational disparities are difficult to witness. As a grandfather, I felt a vicariously urge to tweak the spoiled brat by her ear. But her grandfather is self-absorbed of another kind. He is gracious, graceful, gentle, accepting, forgiving, giving, and patient to Ren Xing’s every whim and whining. In a slow but certain lightness, his kindness transforms their relationship and reforms her obstinacy.
On trains, in buses, cars, boats, and walking, from village to village, the childish child gradually discovers a grace-filled rural life. When lost during a rain storm, they find shelter in a cave. There she enjoys the warmth of a simple fire as she listens to her grandfather’s simple stories. She encounters simple hospitality from strangers, savors comfort food in a peasant farmer’s simple meal, makes friends who climb trees and swims in rivers just for simple fun, and finds hard work in the rice fields a simple communal joy.
“The Nightingale’s” lyrical narrative is enriched by its multi-sensory back drops (the beautiful rural scenes of Guangxi Province) and stirring musical scores. The story telling is slow, thoughtful, and unobtrusive. It is a road trip of self-recovery and self-discovery; it is a recovery of others in their lives and a discovery of meaningful relationships with others. It recovers the traditional virtues of simplicity, hospitality, and generosity. It also recaptures the goodness and warmth of being family, in a post-modern world. Watch “The Nightingale” with your family. All will feel better for it.