Life After Life (Zhi Fan Ye Mao)
Director/Screenplay – Hanyi Zhang, Producers – Jia Zhangke & Zhang Yong, Photography – Chang Mang, Art Direction – Yu Haoran. Production Company – Xstream Pictures
Zhang Mingjun (Ming Chun), Zhang Li (Leilei)
The tiny village of Caizi in rural China is about to be demolished and the inhabitants relocated to apartments in the city to make way for land redevelopment. Ming Chun is one of the last residents left. The spirit of his late wife Xiuying takes over the body of their son Leilei to ask Ming Chun to move the one remaining thing that connects them, the tree they planted in their yard, to a better location.
Life After Life is a Chinese-made film about possession. The strict warning that should come is that this is very different to any Western film about possession – even for that matter any of the Hong Kong-made ones such as The Boxer’s Omen (1983). It is not a horror film. There are no demonic forces or ghostly presences inhabiting the living. It is a mundane story about a man’s wife coming back to inhabit their son in order to get him to move a tree they planted on their property before the area is redeveloped. There is no titanic struggle to exorcise and drive the spirit out. Indeed, there are no visual effects, no spectral manifestations. By complete contrast to any horror movie approach such as say The Exorcist (1973), the mother’s return in the body of her teenage son is something matter-of-factly accepted by everybody else.
What we get is a film that is more about rural gentrification, of a tiny nowhere village that is about to be razed as part of China’s massive redevelopment program. The film seems fairly much resigned to this happening and is not so much a work of protest as it is one lamenting the loss of things. One of the most vivid and symbolic scenes in the film is a shot that starts with the father and son standing on a hillside in their village that pans across the river to show them dwarfed by the industrial landscape of the city where all of them are to be relocated to. The film comes with a visual scheme that renders everything in a dreary uniform grey-brown – the soil, the stone of the village, the sky, the clouds of pollution that are sometimes so overwhelming as to be like a thick fog – where everything has been bleached out of all colour. Indeed, the only colour in the entire film is the faded red of Zhang Li’s jacket. Even the trees are bare skeletons in ashy, wintry landscapes where the branches have been denuded of all green foliage.
The main problem is that Life After Life lacks a story or anything much happening. It is certainly not an uninteresting film in the visuals and the theme about urban development. There are moments of undeniable visual humour – a charming scene where Zhang Mingjun drives his motorcycle cart up a hill and right into the path of a huge industrial caterpillar coming down and is forced to reverse all the way down the hill to the bend to allow it to pass, which could surely not better act as a symbol about the small individual powerless in the face of development that runs throughout the film. But as a story that starts at Point A and progresses dramatically to Point D, Life After Life is a film in which not a lot ever happens. In a Western film there would be all manner of complications regarding family and other supporting characters, along with forces arranged to prevent the removal of the tree; by contrast, this just ambles its way to a foregone conclusion in an untroubled way. Not unlikeable but not exactly leaving one holding their breath either.