A Song for You (China, 2020) [NYAFF 2021]

Sound designer/recordist and composer Dukar Tserang, who has been a close musical collaborator of filmmakers Pema Tseden and Gyal Sonthar, now stands alongside his aforementioned Tibetan colleagues as a full-fledged filmmaker with his directorial debut A Song For You. Appropriately enough, the film quite literally presents a musical journey within Qinghai Province, from Tongde County to the big bustling capital city of Xining. Undertaking this unanticipated journey is young musician Ngawang (Damtin Tserang), who seeks to establish himself in the local, maybe even national, music scene. However, as passionate as he may be and as esteemed as his roots are due to his father’s reputation as a musician in his own right in their community, Ngawang quickly finds that talent alone is no longer the sole requisite to make a name for oneself.

A Song For You (whose producers are Tseden and Jia Zhangke) is at once a physical and metaphorical journey: on one side, it showcases the vibrancy of the contemporary music scene among Qinghai-based Tibetan musicians that encompass various traditional and contemporary genres, in different and even unlikely corners of the province big and small; on the other side, it reveals the disheartening (though not surprising) and sometimes nearly comical machinations of the music industry as it undergoes (further) corporatisation. Though the weaving and structuring of these two thematic facets is not always seamless or engrossing, Tserang is very much a welcome new perspective and addition within the exciting and ever growing new Tibetan cinema.

As such, it is fitting that the film’s narrative is about a journey; or, better yet, a series of journeys as well as detours. Ngawang’s journey begins when he leaves his father and sister at home and goes to Mag Village to participate in a small singing competition. Unfortunately, he does not even place in the top three, making his immodest declamation to others about his talent for the Amdo singing style and authenticity through his preference of the traditional zhanian instrument over the mandolin all the more embarrassing. As an unexpected detour, Ngawang is of course dismayed; so much so that it even prompts him to belittle the talisman that his father had given him, part of which is an image of Loyiter, the goddess of art and music. Nevertheless, Ngawang’s desire to make it as a professional musician remains just as strong. When advised that the only way he can redeem and legitimize himself in the eyes of the major players within the local music industry is to put out a record, Ngawang channels all of his energies to do so. Ironically enough, the real catalyst for this new journey for Ngawang is his once-belittled talisman. When back at home and self-commiserating, upon really looking at the image of Loyiter, he realises that one of the singers from the competition bears a striking resemblance to the goddess and interprets this resemblance the goddess guiding him towards realising his dream. Promptly, Ngawang, his friend Pathar, and another acquaintance embark on a road trip to Xining.

Inevitably, it is the fortuitous stops in a journey rather than the destination itself that prove to be eye-opening, for Ngawang as well as the viewer. On this note, worth mentioning here is the film’s matter-of-fact approach to photographing the landscapes that Ngawang and his friends traverse; that is, they are neither exoticized nor merely decorative. The journeys and stops are memorable vignettes that hint at the much larger world that moves around and beyond Ngawang without him being (fully) aware. In one instance, they get tangled with a gang pursuing Pathar for money owed, which lands them in an accident and provokes a vision of Loyiter. Another instance consists of delightful back-to-back detour-vignettes. After being forced to literally take an off the beaten path detour on the way to Xining, Ngawang and company are stopped by a group whose leader (played by Jinpa) offers Ngawang a musical lesson before they let them pass. The film then temporarily transforms into an energetic music video, after which the leader compels Ngawang and company to drop off his sister at Ragya Monastery. This unforeseen detour begets another detour: outside the monastery, Ngawang bumps into a boy and has him sing and play the zhanian for him. During each of these performances, or lessons, the camera closes in on Ngawang listening intently. The longer the camera stays closely on him, the more it conveys him recalibrating his musical sensibility and ambition in accordance with each of these elements to which he is exposed.

In keeping with the idea that detours and stops can be more compelling than the destination(s), once at Xining, admittedly, narrative interest and charm wane a bit in comparison to what comes before. At Xining, Ngawang meets Yangchen, a singer who resembles the woman at the singing competition and thus also resembles Loyiter. They strike up a friendship and even become an occasional musical duo performing at bars. Most importantly, however, Yangchen helps Ngawang to continue his journey by becoming his guide and key to securing meetings with several producers. For Ngawang certainly, these meetings bring about a different set of musical lessons and/or disillusionments.

Perhaps the most poignant lesson (or disillusionment) of all for Ngawang takes place in the concluding sequence: in a very simple, even self-effacing, manner, its anti-climactic nature of closing the circle of the journey subtly (or not so subtly) invites the question of the costs of playing into the music industry’s rules of the game, to oneself and those close to one.

A Song for You is showing at the New York Asian Film Festival on August 14.