Life After Life ★★★½

[7]

One of this year's out-of-nowhere surprises, Life After Life didn't exactly come out of nowhere. This debut feature by Zhang Hanyi was produced by Xstream Pictures, Jia Zhangke's outfit, and the 6th-Gen master's investment in the vision of this newcomer is a good bet indeed. While it's difficult to imagine Life After Life having much of a journey beyond the most rarefied corners of the festival circuit, that hardly seems the point. Zhang is a painterly filmmaker, a poet of images, and judging from his initial foray into feature filmmaking, he has many lives ahead.

After a brief prologue in which the teenage boy Leilei (Zhang Li) and his father Mingchung (Zhang Minjun) gather twigs for a fire, and discuss the dying orchard of the recently deceased relative known as Fifth Uncle, Leilei's body is taken over by the spirit of his mother, Mingchung's late wife Xiuying. She tells her husband that there is a single tree near the gate to their old family dwelling, one with which she shares a special relationship in the afterlife. He is to remove the tree from this dying orchard and relocate it to a safe location.

In a sense, Zhang's thin plot is but a framework around which a number of other concerns are built. Some of these concerns are thematic: the small village where Mingchung and Xiuying grew up has been slated for demolition by the government (part of yet another vague "modernization project"), and so the tree is an emblem of the last remaining life in the district. No one wants to help relocate the tree; its roots are too deep, and besides, other people have their own problems. Tending to nature, for some purported spiritual reason no less, is in direct contradiction to the self-serving, bottom-line oriented behavior the new Chinese capitalism demands.

But even more than this, Life After Life is a formal study of natural beauty amidst decay. Using a still camera and crisp, exacting digital photography, Zhang continually frames his father and son/wife in deep, receding webs of dead branches and gray sky. Every shot is like a natural prison, the forest knitting itself together to keep these souls within its grasp a little longer.

Similarly, Zhang's use of landscape and location is a wonder to behold. The remaining residents of this no man's land all live in hillside dugout homes, made of carved rock and sand and each bearing an edifice like a low-rent airplane hangar. These homes are cheap and dirty and yet they are utterly impressive, a holdover from an era of wire-and-spit engineering applied to solving the Party's problems in the countryside. These structures are doomed, which is probably not a bad thing. But Zhang memorializes them, turning them into haunted spaces where the human dead and the ageless spirits of the earth re-emerge to bedevil the living.

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