After moving to Beijing decades ago in order to provide a better life for his son Chongyi (Hao Qin), Zhigen (Ban Tian Li) now lives a solitary existence: his wife dead, his best friend a caged nightingale. Zhigen's son is a successful architect and also lives in Beijing with his businesswoman wife Qianing (Xiao Ren Li) and their daughter Renxing (Xin Yi Yang). The family, who superficially have it all, move about their lives disconnected from one another.
But where mother, father and daughter are merely disconnected, grandfather is estranged. An earlier falling out between father and son means Zhigen can't even attend his only granddaughter's birthday party, with Chongyi having prohibited any contact between Zhigen and Renxing.
This all changes when Chongyi and Qianing must embark upon simultaneous business trips. Unable to find anyone else to watch Renxing, Qianing (without telling Chongyi) hastily entrusts her daughter to her grandfather. This happens to coincide with a long-planned trip Zhigen is making back to his home village. He is returning for the first time in years, taking the nightingale that has been his only companion in the city in order to free it near his wife's grave.
So Zhigen and Renxing set out for the countryside, Renxing doing all she can to play the part of brattish city kid and Zhigen struggling to deal with her. A number of obstacles imperil their journey and soon their relationship changes. Renxing begins to open her eyes to the foreign surroundings, and to her grandfather.
The Nightingale was written and directed by Philippe Muyl, and is a French-Chinese co-production. It is a stylishly simple film, beautifully shot – the countryside and ancient villages are rendered dazzlingly. And while many of the themes are well-worn – the odd couple thrown together, family estrangement, materialistic success versus happiness – and many of the outcomes won't leave you shocked, the look at these themes in the context of modern day China is worthwhile. The film doesn't go many places that haven't been gone to before, but it doesn't really matter, its gentle style and simple elegance wins out in the end.