Thursday, October 19, 2017

Margaret Mead ’17: Almost Heaven

The only thing that frightens seventeen-year-old Ying Ling more than ghosts is China’s sky-high teen unemployment rates. For the sake of her family, she will do her best to soldier through the mortician training program at an enormous factory-like mortuary over one hundred miles from her home. However, she will also make friends and start asserting her independence in Carol Salter’s observational documentary Almost Heaven (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Margaret Mead Film Festival.

We never learn how Ying Ling manages to hire on with the Mingyang Mountain Funeral Home, but she is clearly uncomfortable with the nature of the work. However, she often gets timely assistance from a fellow trainee with slightly more experience. For now, they are platonic friends, but the potential for a more romantic relationship is as plain as the nose on the corpse they are grooming.

Ying Ling is a good kid, who struggles with loneliness, but also starts to develop a clear sense of herself. Not to be spoilery, but the ending implies she will get some happiness out of life which is a genuine relief. She is indeed the sort of guileless documentary subject we might otherwise worry about.

In fact, watching Almost Heaven makes us suspect Salter maybe had a more Wisemanesque film originally in mind, but let the charismatic Ying Ling assert control of the film. Yet, she is arguably quite representative of a wide swath of the Chinese population. She and her family face some serious but not dire challenges. She might just be more resilient than most.

Salter could do far worse than periodically revisit Ying Ling in the Michael Apted tradition. Almost Heaven even ends at a perfect transition point to start the next doc, rather than waiting seven years. Regardless, it certainly puts an acutely human face on Chinese unemployment and the increasingly migratory way of life for the Mainland’s working class and even lower middle class. Highly recommended, Almost Heaven screens this Sunday (10/22), as part of this year’s Margaret Mead Film Festival at the American Museum of Natural History.