Song of the Phoenix is the late Chinese filmmaker Wu Tianming's last directorial work. The film revolves around an elderly Suona performer who struggles to pass on the slowly dying musical art to a young apprentice in a modern and urbanized China. Suona is an important instrument in the folk and ritual music of northern Chinese provinces. In the film, the Suona is a symbol of China’s storied cultural past. The film’s soul travels through the unique and high pitch of Suona music, revealing a painful reality that Chinese people are slowly forgetting traditional cultures.
Song of the Phoenix follows the journey of a young city boy named Tianming who is sent by his father to learn Suona from Jiao, one of the remaining masters of the instrument. Jiao is played by award-winning actor Zeru Tao. Before Tianming begins to even lay his fingers on an actual Suona instrument, he is first put through months of rigorous training. During this training, Jiao teaches Tianming not only the physical skills to play Suona but the spirit behind the instrument. Tianming’s determination convinces Jiao that he would become a great Suona player of his generation. A decade later, Tianming leads a Suona band that often performs the sacred Song of the Phoenix at village funerals. But small-village gigs don’t bring in much income for the band and soon other members decide to leave the band to play popular western instruments. Eventually, Tianming finds out that his mentor has lung cancer and has passed away forcing Tianming to make a decision for his and the Suona band’s future.
The film was finished in 2013 but didn't get its theatrical release until May 2016, two years after Wu Tianming's death in 2014. The character Tianming’s name has the same English spelling as the director’s but their meanings are different. In one of Wu’s last interviews, he revealed that he saw himself in the character of the Suona master and felt the same pain to see traditional filmmaking art fading away in China. Wu is known as “the Godfather of China’s fifth-generation filmmakers”. As one of the most influential and significant figures in the history of Chinese cinema, Wu taught many world renowned filmmakers, including Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, Zhuangzhuang Tian and Changwei Gu. His most famous films include the award-winning Old Well and The King of Masks.
In a touching tribute Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese said of him: “Wu Tianming gave all of us throughout the world something remarkable. As the head of Xi’an Film Studio, he created the conditions that allow the creativity of young filmmakers to flourish and thrive.”
Song of the Phoenix and Marvel’s Captain America 3 were released in the same week in China. Most theaters wanted to profit off Captain America 3 and ong of the Phoenix was released on less than 1% of all screens. The film’s producer Fang Li kneeled and cried in a live video on social media to “beg for more screens on the weekend”. The video went viral and triggered national media discussions on “how Chinese movies should compete with American blockbusters in the box office”.