Mick Jordan reviews Gary Lennon’s film which follows three young prodigies and their families exploring the competitive world of piano playing in China.

“Piano Mania” is apparently a big thing in China with over 40 million students determined  to become maestros of the art and in Gary Lennon’s Piano Dreams, we meet three of them. At ages 8, 12 and 18 they could be said to represent different generations of students, at different stages in their musical journey.  Naturally they each have different dreams and ambitions for their futures.  The youngest, Zidi Xia, is determined that when he grows up he will be a great pianist – and a pilot.  Yingying Xi is utterly committed to her goal of becoming a famous concert player. “There is no plan B” she says and her daily routine is “Practice, Eat, Sleep”.  Yu’ang Zhou is a very mature and calm young man who has set his goal on getting into an American college because “all the best music schools in the world are there.”

Naturally these three children have full parental support behind them, particularly from their mothers.  Yu’ang’s mother has always loved the arts and music but says she grew up in a time when these were not respected.  Now that they are she is determined that her son will benefit from the change in attitude and his own natural skill.   But she is not pressuring or pushing him in any direction he doesn’t want to go himself, she is not living her own dreams through him.

Yingying’s parents have dedicated everything to helping her realise her hopes and aspirations, making many personal sacrifices in the process.  The family has had to split up with mother and daughter moving from their small country village to Shanghai while back home, her father has quit his secure government job to go into business for himself so as to make more money to fund their daughter’s progress.  But he suffers from diabetes and on top of that his own mother has been ill with heart problems.  Yingying’s mother claims she feels a little guilty (and clearly feels a lot guilty) about leaving him behind with his troubles and not being there for him or other members of the family in their times of need.

Zidi’s family too have made sacrifices to pay for his expensive tutoring but his mother is quite adamant that she has a life of her own which she insists can only benefit Zidi.  She also says that Zidi can quit piano anytime he wants -and we believe her.  She wants him to do well at his craft certainly, but she wants him to enjoy himself too while he’s doing it.  There is a lovely scene where Zidi enthusiastically explains to camera the mechanics that make a grand piano a superior instrument to an upright.  His mother looks on and laughs with delight at his excitement but she like us is engrossed – not to mention informed.

Gary Lennon and his cinematographer Richard Hughes (also credited as co-director) ensure that the story is told by the people it is about.  We rarely hear from anyone else and usually only in their interaction with the central subjects.  As a result we feel closer to the people and involved in their lives, so much so that our interest is not necessarily that they rise to great heights but that they are happy in their efforts to do so.  The film is a very entertaining slice of a life we normally know so little about.  Here we feel that we are seeing ordinary daily life in modern China through the lives of these people we quickly come to know, even if they are only three families among 40 million.

Piano Dreams is in cinemas from 24th May 2024.




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