By Diana Cheng
AAP film reviewer
CALGARY (March 29, 2017) — “Life After Life” from China is one of ten narrative films in competition for the Golden Gate Award New Directors Prize at the 60th San Francisco International Film Festival. While this is the debut feature of Zhang Hanyi, a graduate of China’s Central Academy of Drama in 2009, the producer of the film is a well-known name in festival circuit, Jia Zhang-ke (A Touch of Sin, 2013). The film is the most recent work with his own “Wings Project” to promote young directors.
The Chinese title 枝繁叶茂 literally means “abundant branches and plentiful leaves”, a phrase referring to profuse lineage and prolific offspring. What we see on screen is a different picture. It is winter time in a rural area, bare trees, fruitless orchard, the ground brown and barren, dwellings abandoned or collapsed, and the old die. We soon find out the reason for the desolation other than the wintry season, industrial development in the area.
Both Zhang Hanyi and Jia Zhang-ke are from the Shaanxi Province in northwestern China. They had witnessed the effects of modernization displacing villages, resulting in dereliction and the collapse of the rural livelihood as villagers migrate to the cities, abandoning their homes. “Life After Life” works like a visual allegory depicting such changes.
Zhang has chosen to use an interesting way to tell his story. He combines the Buddhist concept of reincarnation and the folk legend that says restless souls of the dead would come back to possess a living body to achieve an unfinished matter before the soul can rest peacefully and stay in the netherworld.
Mingchun (Zhang Mingjun) is a widower striving on a threadbare living with his son Leilei. They have to pick tree branches and twigs as firewood for warmth, to the disgruntled reluctance from his son. The young is more ready to embrace modernization. He asks his father why they can’t have electric blankets. Upon that moment of dispute Leilei stomps away. When Mingchun finds his son later, the spirit of his wife Xiuying who had died ten years earlier has possessed Leilei’s body. Xiuying is a quiet spirit, not fretful, but has come back with one single request: to move the tree she had planted in their home when they got married to a safe place before the village is razed down. Even when the village is gone, the tree can live on. Life after life.
Director Zhang uses local villagers in his film. They wear their own clothes, talk as they would talk, their presence exude authenticity almost like a docudrama. But Zhang’s stylistic touch is also prevalent. Static camera and long takes capture the unhurried rural life. Scenes are minimal, devoid of music and emotions. The sounds we hear are dogs barking, birds chirping, nature and man. The numbed, deadpan faces of characters suggest a resignation of life.
To fulfil the request of Xiuying’s wandering spirit, Mingchun goes about asking for help to move the tree but to no avail. Finally he and Leilei have to do the moving on their own. Father and son dig into the hardened ground, bundle the roots, and move it ever so slowly up a plank leading to the trailer hinged at the back of his motorcycle.
Here is the picture of persistence, the boy pulling the rope tied to the tree at the front, Mingchun maneuvering and pushing it at the back. We watch the two struggle, in real time, moving inch by inch up the plank, only to have the tree fall off the plank when they almost reach the top. Now the two have to do it again, pulling and pushing ever so slowly up the plank once more from the ground up. Yes, exactly, that’s the picture of Sisyphus pushing a boulder up the hill. Here, father and son’s effort is rewarded though at the end. In this scene, at least, they are the master of their own fate. The replanting of the tree is the ultimate goal now, to fulfill the wish of the dead and to allow life to continue despite desolation.
“Life After Life” is a quiet meditation on the effects of modernization among the powerless, rural dwellers. It was a First Feature Award nominee at Berlinale 2016. The film will come to the 60th San Francisco International Film Festival on April 8, 14 and 15 in the Bay Area. Director Zhang Hanyi will be in attendance in the last two screenings. For more info and tickets visit the webpage http://www.sffilm.org/festival/lineup/life-after-life#.WNc_aBgZNE4