A man carries out the wishes of his late wife, whose spirit has possessed their son, in this bleak Chinese drama.
Life After Life (ND/NF Review)
I love a good ghost story, so when I read the synopsis of first-time writer/director Zhang Hanyi’s Life After Life—a description that included the spirit of a deceased mother possessing her son—I was all in. While I didn’t quite get what I bargained for, what I got wasn’t bad. It’s a ghost story for sure, but one unlike anything I’ve seen before.
Mingchung (Zhang Minjun) and his son Leilei (Zhang Li) are walking through the forest gathering fallen sticks to use as kindling in the fireplace that warms their home. After a brief spat between the two, Leilei sees a hare race by and gives chase. He’s gone for several minutes and when he returns, he is Leilei only in body; his spirit has been replaced by that of his late mother, Xiuying. Using her own voice, Xiuying asks her widowed husband to return to their previous home, dig up the tree she planted in the front yard (a gift from her father), and replant it somewhere safe from the industrialization that is growing and will eventually lay waste to that old land. Mingchung dutifully obliges, at first attempting to recruit help but eventually doing it himself, with Leilei/Xiuying’s help.
The setting, which Hanyi and cinematographer Chang Mang magnificently capture in wide static shots with sharp details and an achingly muted palate, reflects a barebones Chinese countryside forever skirting the edges of industrial sprawl. The land is mostly dead, but the sense is that the death is not some hibernation demanded by the wintery season; instead, it’s the earth’s terminal state of complete surrender to the assault it is under.
The film’s characters are not much different. Repressed by dreadful socioeconomic conditions, Mingchung and those whom he attempts to recruit to relocate the tree are distant, unemotional, and devoid of personality or excitability. If no one is phased by the notion that Xiuying has returned in the form of her own son’s possessed body, then it comes as no surprise that no one is phased at the site of a man suffocating a goat. That’s a level of repression that borders on abused. It might also explain why Mingchung can’t get the help he wants since nobody cares.
And yet buried deep within these doldrums are sparks of hope. Xiuying, at least in spirit, is back with her husband, and she gets the opportunity to see her parents one last time. This offers hope for an afterlife and a way back for those so inclined. And at one point, Xiuying alerts Mingchung that his deceased parents have since been reincarnated—one as a dog and one as a bird. It’s absurd to the point of being funny, although the constant hum of misery stifles any laughter.
Then there is, of course, the love story. It isn’t overt or sappy, nor is it traditional, but it’s there in the form of Mingchung taking on this massive task rather than not rejoicing in his late wife’s temporary return. He didn’t have much of a life, but the life he had was put on old to make her happy one last time. He seals the deal with a devastating monologue late in the film, where the reason for her demise is revealed and his regret surrounding the circumstances and the aftermath come to light. It’s never elaborated on, but their meet-cute must have been something special.
Life After Life, with its foreign arthouse sensibilities, its glacial pace, and its chasms of silence between sparse lines of dialogue, is a film that dares you to dislike it. And yet I didn’t. In fact, I found it quite hypnotic. I also found it rather sentimental, given the task at hand for its protagonist and who’s responsible for sending them on their journey. It isn’t a perfect film, and it won’t be for everyone, but it’s certainly worth a shot.
Life After Life screens as part of New Directors/New Films in New York City. To learn more about the festival or buy tickets, visit www.newdirectors.org.