'Life After Life' ('Zhi Fan Ye Mao'): Berlin Review

Life after Life still 1 - Zhang Mingjun, Zhang Li -H 2016
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
A deadpan, existential ghost story in the Chinese countryside.

Zhang Hanyi’s Jia Zhangke-produced debut bows in Berlin’s Forum sidebar.

Less than a year after ushering in an Inner Mongolia-set adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Castle, Chinese auteur-turned-producer Jia Zhangke has returned with another existential tale set in his country’s rural hinterlands. A first feature from young director Zhang Hanyi, Life After Life channels Albert Camus’ spirit from start to finish, to the  point of having not one but two scenes — a fumbling attempt to move a tree up a plank, another about the tugging of a gigantic rock — channeling the writer’s famous treatise on Sisyphus and his boulder.

Revolving around the tortuous attempt of a man and his son to salvage a tree from their now deserted rural commune in northwestern China, Life After Life is a slow, heavily stylized yet incredibly poised deadpan drama combining producer Jia’s trademark wry commentary about social alienation and the quietly seething static imagery of Pedro Costa. This debut should secure a long life on the festival circuit after its bow at Berlin’s indie-inclined Forum section.

The film’s Chinese title translates to "labyrinthine branches with plentiful of leaves," a phrase also used to imply a blooming clan. An ironic handle, perhaps, as both foliage and lineage is in short supply here. Shot in desaturated browns and grays, the village at the center of the story is depopulated and dying, with its orchards and dwellings lying in ruins with most residents having moved to equally gloomy tenement blocks some miles away.

Among those who remain is the middle-aged Mingchun (Zhang Mingjun), who has to contend with both his impoverished existence and also the complaints of his son Leilei (Zhang Li), a boy struggling to understand why he has to bear the brunt of his father’s penchant for a rural life devoid of mod cons. After a row with his father — prompted by the boy declaring he wants to find a "man’s job" like working a crane to get out of a life reliant on firewood and minimal sustenance — Leilei splits, only to return possessed by her dead mother’s spirit.

She says she has returned because she wants to move a tree marking the cave-home they once lived together in. So begins the journey of Mingchun and his wife/son across their home region (of Shaanxi) to call on family and friends to help — visits which reveal both the family’s frosty relationships with their own relatives, but also the frustration and anxiety permeating a part of inland China laid waste by the demise of both farming and industry. All this unfolds only by implication, though, with the doom and gloom leavened by absurd dramatic tangents (such as Mingchun visiting the new animal incarnations of his parents) or striking images (goats stuck on trees, a family moving a cupboard across country lanes).

In more uncertain hands, Life After Life could have been riddled with the sentimental cliches commonplace to paranormal dramas about dead people coming back to life and reflections on the good old days. Instead, Zhang and his DP Chang Mang opt for minimalist aesthetics spiced up by the odd moments of pitch-black humor, armed with a ceaseless string of strange happenings or anomalous representations of mundane everyday life. The end-result is a Chinese ghost story with a difference, its characters — man or ghost — struggling in an absurd world at once strangely hilarious and eerily terrifying.

Production company: Xstream Pictures
Cast: Zhang Li, Zhang Mingjun, Wang Jishan, Wei Xiaomin
Director: Zhang Hanyi
Producers: Jia Zhangke, Zhang Yong
Screenwriter: Zhang Hanyi
Director of photography: Chang Mang
Production designer: Yu Haoran
Editor: Mathieu Laclau
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Forum)
International Sales: Xstream Pictures
In Mandarin

No rating; 85 minutes