Credit: The Seventh Art Pictures
by Shar Tan Featured Film

A Song Sung Blue — Zihan Geng [Cannes ’23 Review]

May 30, 2023

A delicate and bittersweet queer coming-of-age film,  A Song Sung Blue is also, unfortunately, weighed down by all the predictable beats that befall its bildungsroman genre. Set in the early 2010s in Harbin, China, Geng Zihan’s debut feature follows fifteen-year-old Liu Xian (Zhou Meijun), who’s sent off to live with her estranged father after her mother takes a job in Africa. Xian is a child whose presence is a mere afterthought to her parents; in turn, she shrinks down within every space she occupies, reducing herself to silently watching the world from behind window sills as it moves on without her. Xian’s father is a photographer, and his studio is where Xian is forced to spend most of her time. It’s at the studio that Xian meets Mingmei (Huang Ziqi), the bold and assertive 18-year-old daughter of the receptionist with whom Xian’s father is having an affair.

The photography studio offers an appropriate setting to highlight Xian’s growing (and largely unrequited) infatuation with Mingmei. Upon arriving at the studio, we’re introduced to Xian — who barely spares a glance for her father — gazing longingly at professional portraits of women. In these photographs, the women appear cheerful; they’re donned in garish colors that outshine Xian’s drab uniform (and stand out against this film’s predominantly melancholic blue palette). Yet every photograph also suggests the alluring pretense of appearances: Xian longs to be recognized by her parents, and this desire leads her to fall for a woman whose interest in Xian is as dead as the frozen frames plastered all over the studio. Not surprisingly, Mingmei also poses for portraits from time to time, thus bringing the cruel filmic metaphor of a lonely and unrequited love to fruition. 

While cinematographer Hao Jiayue creates a hazy and dreamlike atmosphere through which to explore Xian and Mingmei’s encounters, perfectly accentuating the fantastical and all-consuming nature of Xian’s one-sided obsession with the older Mingmei, at times Geng’s film seems to rely too heavily on style to buoy a stagnant narrative of desire. The wistfulness pervading every frame mirrors Xian’s passivity and self-defined smallness, especially noticeable in the scenes where Mingmei brings her on various dates with rich and married men. Even moments of Xian’s bold defiance — like when she initiates a kiss with Mingmei — are undercut by a lack of passion and introspection that characterizes the entire film. 

One of A Song Sung Blue’s strongest scenes comes when Xian casually mentions to Mingmei that the married men who abuse their wives won’t be afraid to likewise mistreat her. The familial dysfunction both of these women experience is a paramount determining factor in how they spend their adolescence: Xian retreats into herself while Mingmei lashes out. But A Song Sung Blue ultimately struggles to substantially elucidate these respective womens’ positions with any articulation of the emotional devastation wrought by an unrequited affair. This, in turn, renders Geng’s portrayal of queer desire as marginal as the dreamlike tangents here. And so, while A Song Sung Blue is a solid enough debut from Geng, it would have nonetheless benefited from being explicit in documenting the vibrancy that comes with queerness, letting its protagonist experience all the shades of blue that can accompany desire.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 21.5.