stories have rarely been so matter-of-factly workaday, but this
salt-of-the-earth family in provincial Shanxi can hardly afford to indulge in a
lot of dramatics. Frankly, it will be quite sporting of Mingchun if he fulfills
his late wife’s request to move a significant tree to more fertile ground. It
will be a tiny step to counter the environmental devastation so obvious
throughout Zhang Hanyi’s Life After Life,
which screens during this year’s New Directors/New Films.
has had a hard life, but his thirteenish son Leilei is not making it any
easier. Like most kids of his generation, he has turned against the rural life
and traditional values. However, after their latest row, Leilei’s body comes
back possessed by the spirit of his mother, Xiuying. Mingchun accepts this
claim at face value, but there will be no tears or kisses for their
supernatural reunion. We quickly get the sense their union was one of
convenience that sort of evolved into something like friendship, but that was
about the best they could hope for on their rung of the economic ladder.
reasons we never fully understand, Xiuying needs Mingchun to move a tree
planted near their former quarters to a more hospitable location. That will be
easier said than done. The local environs have been badly scarred and desiccated
by industrial overdevelopment and unsustainably agriculture. Cinematographer
Chang Mang often dwarves the father and son amid the lifeless vistas. Hs
compositions often resemble traditional Chinese watercolors, but the backdrops
are eerily lifeless and barren rather than lush and verdant.
and Xiuying’s spirit will also have to contend with her family’s callous
indifference and the frightening state of provincial infrastructure. Clearly,
there is no support system for rugged peasant stock such as themselves. While
Zhang maintains an elegiac tone, the social and political implications of their
situation are unmistakable.
Life is a subtle and
distinctive film, but it is not what you would opt to watch after an all-night
bender. Zhang’s aesthetic is downright ascetic. His pacing is deliberate and
his tone is rather severe, even compared to the films of executive producer-mentor
Jia Zhangke. Yet, it would be foolish to dismiss Life as just another naturalistic Chinese indie. Zhang Mingjun’s
performance as Mingchun in particular is deeply compelling precisely because it
is so realistically square-jawed and straightforwardly unfussy. This is a man
who takes a beating from life every day, yet keeps plugging on.
It is also striking to see how Zhang depicts
spiritual developments in such gritty, down-to-earth terms. There is nothing
like Demi Moore’s pottery wheel scene in Ghost
here. Yet, when Xiuying guides Mingchun towards encounters with his
reincarnated parents, it hits us on a far deeper level, probably because it
really seems real. Recommended for mature and well-rested cineastes, Life After Life screens this Saturday
(3/19) at MoMA and Sunday (3/20) at the Walter Reade, as part of ND/NF ’16.
Labels: Chinese Cinema, Jia Zhangke, ND/NF '16