REVIEW: The Nightingale – Wherein Fr. Z suggests good movies

I’m a fan of Chinese cinema. I’m sort of a fan of French cinema.  With the help of Netflix today, to the accompaniment of stir fried pork and vegetables I watched a Chinese-French film (in China, on Chinese themes, by a French director): The Nightingale or Le Promeneur d’oiseau or 夜莺 (yèyīng).  US HERE – UK HERE (French version)

The first adjective that leaps to mind is: gentle.  The next has to be: dreamy.

There are five broken people in the movie and one bird.  The bird being released from its cage is the symbol of their healing.  You’ll find quite a few layers.  The main action revolves around a man, estranged from his son whose marriage is falling apart, taking his rather bratty grand daughter from Beijing to his original tiny village where his wife is buried.  It is a common sight in China to see men walking about with bird cages.  This “walk”, however, involves this ancestral voyage to release the now elderly songbird, which had been a gift from his wife, at her grave.   The aging man and the young girl have adventures and come to know each.   I’ll stop there.  I don’t like spoilers.  The film is more complicated than the surface story suggests.

The filming is marvelous.  There is a mystical quality to it at times.   Themes common to Chinese movies, at least that I have observed, are explored: intergenerational relationships, father and son dynamics (rather different in Chinese culture, but universal nevertheless), the tension between the City and the Country and migration.

There are no explosions, car chases, gun fights or spaceships… all of which usually improve film.  There are no bad words or too much skin… which don’t.  There are, however, bamboo forests, a whistle, green and more green, and a cameo by a water buffalo.  It is lovely and patient and dream-like and gentle.

I will now watch something with space ships and death rays, but I am really glad I got this movie, which also demonstrated to me that my Chinese is slipping.  Time to brush it up.

A couple other beautiful Chinese movies for your delight, if you don’t know the genre.

Superb.  Visually gorgeous. By one of my favorite directors Zhang Yimou. I doubt you will last the last few minutes without choking up a little.  Again, we have the tension of tradition and the modern, what was lost and what must be recovered, the countryside versus the city.   Zhang, channeling his inner Vittorio De Sicca (director of the most depressing movie ever made), finds actors who aren’t actors, by the way.  They lend a special quality to the look and sound.


A young man from the country moves to the city to try to make his way.  His livelihood depends on the company’s bicycle which he works eventually to own.  The bicycle is his everything.  Then it is stolen.  He must get it back.  There are a few gut wrenching moments in this one.


The ultimate “If life gives you lemons” flick. A family survives one disaster after another bridging from the fall of the War Lord era, through the revolution, into the Great Leap Forward.  Each time they face catastrophe, it turns out that the previous catastrophe is what enables them to survive the next blow.  Their goal: simply to live, simply.  Acting: incomparable.  Again, Zhang Yimou.

US HERE – UK … might be hard…

Zhang strikes again.  Again with the intergeneration theme.  Again with the tension of the old ways versus modernity.  Again with the father and son dynamic.  The setting is a traditional men’s bathhouse in an old neighborhood of Beijing, dwindling in numbers, not yet demolished for modern buildings.  These bath houses were reference points for men.  They would meet friends, pass the day, converse, bring their special fighting crickets to compete, read, etc.  An aging man is running the place, just barely, and taking care also of his now adult mentally challenged son.  Here comes the older, first son, upwardly mobile, modern, yuppie, detached, conflicted.  Then the father dies and decisions have to be made.  The performance of Jiang Wu as the challenged son is incredible.  You also saw him in To Live (above).

Quite a few of Zhang Yimou’s movies have a quirky and light attitude.  Right up to the twist.


Ang Lee directs this, about an aging widower (again) with three unmarried daughters: perhaps the Chinese definition of that place between a rock and a hard spot.  He is a legendary chef (again with the tradition).  The daughters are firmly in the modern world.  They have a weekly family meal at which surprise announcements are made.  Along the way, however, the old man has lost his sense of taste: not good for a chef.  Is it simply the sense he has lost or his taste for life?  He eventually has his own surprises to announce and his daughters don’t all head off in predictable directions.   The movie was redone in these USA, in Los Angeles with a Mexican American family, under the title Tortilla Soup (US HERE – UK HERE) with Hector Elizondo.  Pretty good! See the Chinese version first.  And be ready to crave Chinese food.  This is one of those movies in which food and its preparation is lushly central.

BTW… you might check out an oldie post I did on the intersection of Dante with Mr. Ping in Kung Fu Panda.  No, really.  HERE


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in REVIEWS and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. tioedong says:

    Yes, one of the good things coming out of China are these films.
    However, you also might also want to check out the Korean Dramas: my granddaughter loves the ones about teenagers in love and or with ghosts(G rated) but I prefer the historical dramas, with gorgeous costumes. The bad news is that they are serials, i.e. with many episodes.
    They are all over TV here, with English subtitles or dubbed in Tagalog, but my granddaughter prefers to just download them and watch them while commuting on her cellphone.

  2. Lucas Whittaker says:

    My wife loves the Korean dramas. She has become fairly proficient at repeating basic phrases of conversation! But, Father Z, it helps to KNOW Chinese: No? As I understand that you do. Or is the English dubbing acceptable in these films?

    In Chinese I can do pretty well with “Hello” and “Thank you”. I am otherwise dumb about the language.

  3. Susan M says:

    Thank you, Father! Just finished watching The Nightingale! I’m going to watch all of them! Thank you again!

  4. jaykay says:

    Wow, thank you Father! “To live” sounds rather like “Wild Swans”… the book. I will check that film out. That period of Chinese history is fascinating. What a pity the West intervened in China so utterly venally and, as it turned out, disastrously – for all of us. But thanks again for reminding us of the wonders of Chinese cinema.

  5. Semper Gumby says:

    Ok, saw the trailer for Nightingale- I’m intrigued.

    And now I have a hankerin’ for KungPao Chicken.

  6. Lucas Whittaker says:

    I finally watched the trailer for Nightingale and I found both the scenery and the interplay between the grandfather(?) and granddaughter to be captivating. I am now sitting down to enjoy the film with a rather British preparation of cod as a late dinner . . . it is rare today to find a film that is so beautifully filmed, to be sure.

  7. Unwilling says:

    The first time I saw To Live, I already knew Zhang Yimou’s amazing earlier works. But To Live is something else. Access to mainland movies was still difficult here in those days (1994); so, thinking I might never see it again, I watched it 7 times in 3 days.

    [subtitles are quite sufficient, but you need at least 3 viewings to get the subtleties]

  8. Cafea Fruor says:

    While lying about at home for a week about eight years ago, too sick to go anywhere but unable to sleep, I chilled out on the couch and flipped through the channels. There was nothing of interest on (there rarely is, but in the middle of the day on weekdays, there’s even less) the usual channels, so I ended up scanning all the “weird” channels, i.e. those that include all the foreign language channels, public access, avant garde artsy movie channels, etc. Thus I came across this pan-Asian channel that had everything in the original languages but subtitled in English. They had everything from Taiwanese comedies to Korean dramas to Japanese manga. Some of it was a little bizarre, and some was just way over the top, but then I found gems like two of these Chinese movies. I got to see The Road Home and Eat Drink Man Woman.

    I think one of the things I most appreciated about these movies was that, for all the westernization that’s happened in Asia, they overall still have a sense of respect that we have overall lost. In American movies, the kids treat the parents like garbage, whereas in the Asian programming, you could see there was a still a sense respect for one’s elders, relatives, bosses, etc. Not in every movie, but in a lot of them, you can still see people bowing to the elders, asking their parents for permission to marry someone, etc. Kind of nice to see.

  9. Semper Gumby says:

    For what it’s worth, here’s another movie about an old man and his granddaughter. In 2005 Tunisian filmmaker Nacer Khemir released the third movie of his Desert Trilogy: “Bab Aziz” or “The Prince Who Contemplated His Soul.” A blind dervish, Bab Aziz, and his granddaughter Ishtar travel across the desert to a Sufi (Muslim minority sect) gathering, encountering various strangers and villages along the way.

    The downside is that the movie is inspired by Sufi mysticism and its element of pantheism. On the other hand, it’s often visually and musically rewarding, and provides a non-Islamist view of classic Arab culture. (Sufis and their shrines have been attacked by Islamists from Pakistan to North Africa and are under pressure in Iran since 2005). Bab Aziz is available with subtitles on DVD and YouTube.

  10. “Indochine” is highly recommended…stars Catherine Deneuve. Set in post Dien Ben Phu Vietnam…and an interesting interplay between the declining French colonialism and nascent rise of the communist state. Worth the time (and it’s in French, so, at least accessible to students of Latinate languages) to watch and consider, IMHO.

Comments are closed.