Cannes Films by Alumni Continue Successful Runs

BY Felix van Kann, January 6, 2020

Cancion Sin Nombre (Song Without a Name), image courtesy of the Kickstarter campaign


After their respective premieres at the Cannes Film Festival’s Directors’ Fortnight, both Cancion Sin Nombre (Song Without a Name) by alumna Melina Leon ’08 and Huo Zhe Chang Zhe (To Live to Sing) by alumnus Johnny Ma ’16 continue to make waves. While Song Without a Name keeps up its successful festival run, To Live To Sing has been released internationally and eyes a domestic release soon. 


Leon’s debut feature won the Bronze Horse for Best Film at the 30th Stockholm International Film Festival. The film, raising awareness about baby trafficking in 1980’s Peru, also won for Best Cinematography by Inti Briones.


The film follows Georgina, a young woman from the Andes, who goes to an apparent maternity clinic. When her newborn daughter disappears, she sets off on a desperate search for the child. 


According to Variety’s Guy Lodge, “The film’s wistful, elegiac tone, immaculate monochrome cinematography and compassionate focus on disenfranchised indigenous women will inevitably prompt surface-level comparisons to Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. But León’s far more modestly scaled Latin American period piece is entirely its own film, meshing vérité-style technique with passages of dark, folkloric reverie, as its characters’ investigation of a single kidnapping spirals into a heady vortex of institutional corruption.”


Still from Huo Zhe Chang Zhe


Johnny Ma’s second feature film To Live To Sing has also continued to raise strong reactions on the festival circuit. After Cannes, the drama went on to win Best Film and Best Actress honors at the Shanghai International Film Festival. Now it eyes a release for the American market with Films Boutique repping domestic sales. 


According to Deadlines Patrick Hipes, To Live To Sing “has seen a slew of sales including to Epicentre in France. Game Theory scooped up Canadian rights ahead of its Reel Asian screening and will release it in early 2020. A Chinese domestic release is slated for the spring. 


The film centers on a traditional Chinese opera troupe that faces the demolition of their beloved theater as the push for modernization hits their rural town, painting a stark but beautiful picture of a country wrestling with itself over its past and future. 


Hollywood Reporter’s Clarence Tsui states, “This engaging drama about the damage being inflicted on traditional artists and the working poor in China and perhaps around the world is an apt reflection on what limits those who aspire to exist on their own terms. Starring real-life Sichuan opera performers and filmed in a dilapidated neighborhood nearing the end of its existence, To Live to Sing is a much grittier take on urban malaise than Diao Yinan's neo-noir The Wild Goose Lake, which premiered in official competition. But Ma's film is not a mere social-realist tract. He has spiced the story with a handful of surreal scenes to highlight the real-life nightmare his protagonist is living through.”


Melina León is a Peruvian director based in NYC and Lima. She was the recipient of a 2015 Jerome Foundation Emerging Artist Production Grant to direct this film. Her previous short film El Paraíso de Lili (Lili’s Paradise) is also set in 1980’s Lima. It officially premiered at the prestigious New York Film Festival and was selected at over 20 international film festivals, winning 11 awards, among them Best Latin American short film at the São Paulo International Short Film Festival. León grew up in Lima and moved to New York City in 2003 to study film directing at Columbia University. She currently works internationally as a director, producer, editor and teacher.


Born in China, Johnny Ma immigrated to Canada as a child. A Columbia graduate, he moved back to China for his thesis film that premiered at TIFF. His debut film Old Stone premiered at the Berlinale and received the Best Canadian First Feature Award at TIFF & Best First Feature at Canadian Screen Awards.