Stammering Ballad (China, 2018)

Ga Song is a Chinese folk singer attempting to make a professional living as he tours province after province, from one city to the next, all the while desperately waiting for his one big chance at super-stardom. He is the focus of Zhang Nan’s feature documentary Stammering Ballad, which offers not only a profile of the singer but also of the contemporary China that surrounds him.

Ga Song makes for a fascinating protagonist, and his many complexities are revealed as the film goes on. For one thing, he speaks with a pronounced stutter that manifest when he talks and disappears when he sings. It lends him an awkward but amiable air, and adds to his geeky but weirdly charming looks, clothes, and round glasses. Beyond the charm one notices his artistic obsessions – he is regularly recording voices and natural sounds when out in the field, and mixing them into his in-development music album. Then comes the burning ambition: Ga Song does not simply want success, he seems to believe he is actively owed fame and fortune by the world at large. Finally, there is the bitterness. He is not a commercially successful artist, and at times his frustration that he is not makes him a vaguely unpleasant person. All of these aspects roll back and forth throughout the film, and collectively they offer a clear and effective portrait of a particularly complex figure.

His personal behavior and foibles are at their clearest when he is seen interacting with other people. His family, his friends, and his former colleagues all appear, and the various ways in which he speaks to them showcase those same facets identified in him more generally. His personal frustrations are most palpably witnessed in his performances. In one early moment we see him waiting at the back of a club watching a pop star entertain the crowd. Cut to the next scene and it is Ga’s turn – only he performs to a crowd of four. As director, Zhang makes it very clear how bruising and difficult a musician’s life can be.

The film’s strongest element by far is actually its photography. Zhang shoots with a great visual eye, giving the various spontaneous scenes and encounters an aesthetic you often don’t see in some narrative dramas. Whether by using a clever tone of ambient light, or spotting a particularly eye-catching framing, Stammering Ballad is certainly one of the more attractive Chinese documentaries of recent years.

As Ga Song travels from province to province, extensive tracts of Chinese countryside are profiled along with him. The most beautiful scenes linger in the mind, and contrast with other scenes filled with crude environmental vandalism. Two sides of China, side-by-side, make for a powerful overall aesthetic – one that goes largely uncommented upon throughout the film. What does shine through is Ga’s personal connection to the Chinese landscape, which adds yet another resonant dimension to his character.

The film feels a little slow in places – and an earlier festival edit was reported almost half an hour longer again. There are also occasional moments where key footage appears to have been unavailable. We see Ga and his friends prepare to perform at a televised talent show, and we see their reaction to it, but never actually see them perform. There is a surprising lack of performance in the film generally. Ga is a singer, but we rarely get an extended chance to actually watch him sing.

Part artist profile, part road movie, and part natural showcase, Stammering Ballad is a flawed but ultimately insightful work of documentary film. One ends the film desperately wanting Ga to find the commercial success he desires, but at the same time wondering if he really deserves it.