‘Piano Dreams’: Galway Review | Reviews
Directed by: Gary Lennon. Ireland. 2022. 85 minutes
Anyone who dreams of becoming the next Lang Lang or Sa Chen will find that the odds are fiercely stacked against them in Piano dreams. Gary Lennon’s eye-opening documentary informs us that there are more than 40 million piano students in China, and laconic observes “for some of them there is no Plan B.” By picking out three hopefuls from the crowd, the film charts their individual journeys while offering a new perspective on modern China and middle-class ambitions. The engaging stories of human interest and discreet handling will ensure that it hits the right note at documentary festivals and on art channels.
Piano dreams seems like a simple, observational documentary, but throughout Lennon, Lennon tries to look past the cliché of a more complex reality
Director Gary Lennon (Castro’s spy, 2020) lived in Shanghai from 2002 to 2005 and lived next door to the city’s music conservatory, where he became acutely aware of the “piano mania” that swept across the country. IN Piano dreams, he captures the lives of three star players: eight-year-old Xia Zidi dreams of being a pilot by day and a pianist by night; 12-year-old Xi Yingying wants to become a famous concert pianist; and 19-year-old Zhou Yu’ang has his heart set on studying in the United States as “all the best music schools in the world are in America.”
Lennon provides ample evidence of the trio’s talent and application. Every waking moment is reserved for improving their mastery of a Steinway. Exercising four or five hours a day seems like a minimum requirement, and it comes on top of schoolwork. Competitions are an important source of validation and a chance to go against each other with peers. It is a life of intense focus, self-discipline and sacrifice that is also felt acutely by their families; especially mothers, who have put everything on hold to support their child in Shanghai. Yet the cliché that tiger parents mercilessly push their child to succeed is not the reality here. There is a concern for the child’s welfare, especially from Xia Zidi’s mother Xu Jiajia.
Piano dreams seems like a simple, observational documentary, but throughout Lennon, Lennon tries to look past the cliché of a more complex reality. The relationship between student and teacher is important, but it is not quite the intensity Neck length here. Most teachers require obedience and hard work, but are often involved in the child’s broader life. Chen Panpan is almost a father figure to Xia Zidi, although he threatens: “If your grandfather was not here, I would beat you.”
The drive to avoid the obvious is also seen in the depiction of Shanghai itself. Lennon and cinematographers Richard Hughes (also co-directed) and Sascha Shoerberl portray a Shanghai with richness and luxury. Tall office blocks shine in bright sunlight, city lights twinkle across the city’s spectrum and scope at night.
Cara Holmes’ editing balances the three different stories through academic struggles and musical triumphs. There is no obvious comment, but the pictures and editing help to highlight the recurring themes of family, sacrifice and food. Reunions always seem to take place around tables moaning of feasts; another sign of the wealth of China’s urban middle class.
The three pianists represent a different generation. The trio works towards the perceived notion of a robot quality in Chinese performers who have learned all the notes, but little of the emotion, and seem to strive for a flow in the game and an emotional understanding of the music. Piano dreams very much captures a sense of changing times. One person comments: “I think the piano will soon be like the computer – almost every home will have one. Just like when TV first came to China.”
Production companies: Gambit Pictures, 3B-Produktion, NDR, ARTE
International Sales: Met Film Sales. [email protected]
Producer: Raymond McCormack
Screenplay: Gary Lennon, Raymond McCormack
Cinematography: Richard Hughes, Sascha Schoeberl
Editing: Cara Holmes