Ghost 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.
Mingchun 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.
For 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.
Mingchun 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.