Piano Dreams: An arresting chronicle of Chinese musical ambition from an Irish director

The documentary by Gary Lennon follows three talented young piano players as they negotiate a fiercely competitive landscape

Piano Dreams
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Director: Gary Lennon, Richard Hughes
Cert: G
Genre: Documentary
Starring: Shuying Jiang, Yu’ang Zhou, Panpan Chen, Zidi Xia, Yingying Xi
Running Time: 1 hr 26 mins

Gary Lennon’s arresting chronicle of musical ambition opens with a number. China has more than 40 million piano students – and “for some of them there is no plan B”. Lennon, the Irish director of Castro’s Spies, lived beside Shanghai Conservatory of Music between 2002 and 2005, from where he observed the country’s infatuation with the pianoforte. One person suggests that in China the piano “will soon be like the computer: almost every home will have one”.

The documentary follows three talented young players as they negotiate a fiercely competitive landscape. Eight-year-old Xia Xidi competes in insane piano battles against classmates at the bidding of his stern, paternal music teacher, Chen Panpan. Twelve-year-old Xi Yingying hopes to be a concert pianist. Nineteen-year-old Zhou Yu’ang plans to study at an American conservatory.

The kids didn’t decide to become the next Yuja Wang on their own. Their families – particularly their mothers – have made huge sacrifices. Xi and Zhou are raised solely by their determined mums, leaving their dads and extended families behind in remoter regions of China. For many years Zhou and his mother spent their weekends on overnight trains to Shanghai so that he might get the best lessons. Finally, they moved there.

It looks like helicopter parenting but, as relatives explain to the film-makers, in their eyes western children have too much freedom. “Every Chinese parent wants their son to be a dragon and their daughter to be a phoenix,” says one dad. Students’ successes are marked by numerous feasts and social occasions.


In the final act, thanks to Cara Holmes’s clever editing, we anxiously wait to learn the results of Xia’s competition, Xi’s exam and Zhou’s college applications. No matter the outcome, there’s a certain melancholy in knowing they can’t all be the new Lang Lang.

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic