'Almost Heaven': Film Review | Berlin 2017

Almost Heaven still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Rocksalt Films ; Carol Salter
A portrait of a vibrant soul working among the dead.

British documentary director Carol Salter follows a young woman's induction into her new job as a mortician in China.

Almost Heaven begins with a view of the empty, underground corridors of a funeral home; then two bored morticians are shown fiddling with their phones; and, finally, a hydraulic lift descends slowly into view with a cadaver on it. But British documentary director Carol Salter's debut feature is not as morbid and despairing as its opening scenes suggest.

The film is definitely not a modern-day Chinese equivalent of Jessica Mitford's An American Way of Death: here, the undertakers are shown to be thoroughly respectful professionals, as they prepare for and then preside over simple and genuinely heartrending rituals designed to send the deceased to paradise.

But at its core, Salter's film is less concerned with the afterlife than with the living human beings working among the dead. Its title seems to point to the status of the deceased before cremation, but Almost Heaven actually alludes to the uncertain social and psychological space occupied by a young Chinese mortician as she prepares to taste the free, independent and cosmopolitan existence provided by her new job.

World-premiering at Berlin in the festival's youth-oriented Generation 14Plus section, Almost Heaven displays a gentleness and humanity that should guarantee passage through the festival circuit — with its alternative take on everyday Chinese life working to its advantage. Given its short runtime — just 75 minutes — the film could also find a healthy afterlife on TV with a few minor cuts.

Salter's protagonist is Ying Ling, a 17-year-old trainee at a funeral parlor in Changsha, the capital of the central Chinese province of Hunan. The film begins by closely following Ling's training, as she practices corpse-washing procedures on a mannequin and then a colleague before going online to find ways to alleviate her fear of ghosts. After her first encounter with a real dead body, she reflects on whether she's cut out for the job, then heads into town for dinner, daubing her French fries with blood-red ketchup aplenty.

Salter and her trio of editors bring out many moments like this, in which Ying comes across as a vibrant teenager grappling with the possibilities and perils of her new existence away from home. There's nothing desperate, delinquent or different about her; she regularly calls her parents, heads out for a night at the mall or the amusement arcades, and struggles to articulate her feelings toward a similarly childlike co-worker as he packs up and leaves for another job closer to home.

This issue of young, migratory workers in China is actually what Almost Heaven intends to broach. Unlike the previous generation of unschooled rural laborers flooding into urban centers for lowly jobs, Ying and her cohorts are high school graduates trying their luck in better-paid jobs in the cities. The film succeeds in conveying Ying's efforts to adapt to her new life, and then her struggle to contain the boredom brought about by all the routine work. 

Salter teases a bubbly and engaging personality out of a seemingly ordinary and mild-mannered adolescent; the filmmaker-cinematographer is ever-ready — sometimes perhaps a bit too present and ready — to capture the young woman's emotional ebbs and flows. While not exactly a melodramatic individual, Ying does openly reveal her emotions for the camera: all those forlorn gazes into the distance as she wanders around city streets or cemeteries, and the pregnant silences in conversations between her and the boy she loves.

Somehow, Almost Heaven draws a vibrant, human story out of seemingly average lives that fit with neither the glamour nor the grime of most screen portraits.

Production Company: Rocksalt Films, Postcode Films
Director-screenwriter: Carol Salter
Producers: Carol Salter, Elhum Shakerifar, Heike Bachelier, Cinzia Baldessari
Director of photography: Carol Salter

Music: Terence Dunn
Editors: Cinzia Baldessari, Hoping Chen, Rodrigo Saquel
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Generation 14Plus)
In Mandarin

75 minutes