By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
After 18 years of living in Beijing, Zhigen is finally fulfilling a promise to his late wife and returning to their village in the Chinese countryside with the nightingale she gave him as a parting gift.
For nearly two decades, he had been putting off this trip. But now that he is getting up there in his years, Zhigen (played by Baotian Li) realizes he — and the bird — may not have much time left to return home.
“The Nightingale” is the story of Zhigen’s cross-country trip, which he initially expects to go on alone. But when both his son and daughter-in-law are called away on business, Zhigen finds himself entrusted with Renxing, his young granddaughter, played by Xin Yi Yang.
When the two set out on their journey, things are more than just a little rough. From transportation mix-ups, to being forced to spend a couple days in a small village thanks to an ankle injury, Zhigen sustains from walking through the forest—an already not-so-simple trip quickly becomes a grand misadventure for grandfather and granddaughter.
While “Nightingale” is largely a road trip movie, focusing on Zhigen and Renxing’s journey, it is also a family drama as the relationships among the four main characters are complicated. At the starting point of the film, Zhigen and Renxing barely know each other; Zhigen and his son Chongyi (played by Hao Qin) have been estranged for about four years and Chongyi’s relationship with his wife Quanying (played by Xiao Ran Li) has grown distant as the couple has allowed their work to take priority.
Although “Nightingale” is in Mandarin and having to read subtitles may sometimes detract from the viewer’s experience, the film is well acted by the four cast members that there is no need to translate their feelings and emotions.
Baotian Li, playing a grandfather trying to keep up with the fast-paced world that is the present, will remind viewers that there is value in learning to take your time and appreciate the little things. And the patience he shows Yang’s character at times is something any adult who has had to deal with children will appreciate.
The grandfather-granddaughter relationship is what makes “Nightingale” so enjoyable. Most of my favorite scenes were with the two of them as Renxing would try to explain the latest technology to Zhigen. That kind of intergenerational struggle is so universal that anyone from any culture would understand. No translation needed.
Yang’s performance is also wonderful as she plays the spoiled granddaughter living in the city perfectly. The stunts she pulls with Zhigen to get her way — along with this air of entitlement she exudes while pulling them — may have some viewers initially disliking her. But as the film progresses and she slowly comes to realize the sacrifices her grandfather constantly makes, we see her character soften and redeem herself and grow excited about their adventure. This type of evolving performance for such a young actor was nothing short of impressive.
Qin and Xiao Ran Li also give great performances as Renxing’s parents. The way they play off each other in scenes together is heartrending as we see two people who clearly still love each other but do not know how to fix their relationship to back to what it used to be.
In addition to the four main characters, the Chinese countryside also plays a large role in the film. From vast rice fields to small villages, to a forest in the middle of nowhere, “Nightingale” is a visually stunning film that will have viewers eager to want to visit the country. (end)
Samantha Pak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.