To Live To Sing offers an operatic take on a fast-changing China

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      Starring Zhao Xiaoli. In Mandarin, with English subtitles. Rated PG

      Sometime Vancouverite Johnny Ma, who made the prize-winning Old Stone, about gaps in the Chinese health-care system (and much more), changes gears here, following a Sichuan-opera troupe on the verge of collapse.

      The picaresque story centres on tough-as-nails Zhao Li (Zhao Xiaoli), struggling to keep her company going as times and tastes keep changing. Currently, her pretty niece Dan Dan (Gan Guidan) is bringing some new customers to add to the doddering oldsters who make up most of the base for this more dance-based variation on the better-known Beijing opera style. But Dan Dan is using her noodle to start a parallel career as nightclub performer—something her aunt, who essentially raised her, sees as the road to perdition. Some of the other performers are sneaking off to do the “mask dance” at popular restaurants, illustrating how archaic forms carry on in vestigial fashion.

      The demolitions facing their home theatre (and just about everything else in fast-changing China) are real and so are the performers, who do their own music and dancing here. It’s essentially a “let’s put on a show to save our beloved roller rink” story, given fresh life in a classical setting. Mainly, it gives us a chance to observe the quirky relationships between the players, recalling the better moments of Yasujiro Ozu’s A Story of Floating Weeds, about a struggling kabuki troupe.

      The awkwardly titled movie’s episodic structure, which veers from spooky magic realism to bureaucratic entropy, is not always so engaging. The pileup of set pieces near the end is almost too much of a good thing; they feel like they were shot at a different time and place, and Ma didn’t want to waste them. But this talented young filmmaker makes an entertaining case for not throwing out the cornerstones of your culture to build a shiny new skyscraper that, one day, will also fall.