A matter of time

When this year’s New Directors/New Films began, Apichaptong Weerasetakul’s latest movie, Cemetery of Splendor (2015), was being exhibited in New York, across the street from one of the festival’s venues, at Lincoln Center’s own Elinor Bunin Munroe center.It is no surprise that, within the festival’s own description, Zhang Hanyi’s first feature is being compared to the Thai master: in different ways, both are heartily embracing life after life and feature a central character having the aptitude to communicate with the other world. The woman in Apichaptong’s film communicates with comatose or sleeping people sharing their thoughts, past lives and desires to the leaving; Leilei (Zhang Li), the protagonist of Life After Life, receives directly the “visit” from his late mother, who communicates with him and through him with the young boy’s father, Ming Chun (Zhang Mingjun). In both movies, the matters of spirit are actually quasi accidental, definitely mundane and primarily literal (even if one could dig for the metaphors in this rapport). Both filmmakers are preoccupied with the survival of those dead spirits within an evolving landscape. In the case of Zhang Hanyi’s, it is mostly the shifting ground between the countryside, still sheltered by ancestral caves, overlooked by ancient trees, and the contemporary city, inexorably taking over both the rural lifestyle, social class and habitat. Images are there to constantly remind us, on different levels, of this dichotomy.

That is the battleground, the space for direct confrontation, as when a modest pick-up truck, driven by Leilei’s father, has to give way to a massive yellow excavator. The countryside farmer and the urban construction worker end up on a path on which only one can drive at the time. Sure enough, the one going up, the small vehicle, has to give in and reverse its gears. But the terms the film is setting is actually not of conquest, defeat and victory. It is in search of some kind of compromise: how might those two worlds endure? After all it is most probable that the excavator’s driver was a farmer himself until this very moment. Perhaps the answers to this “battle” can only come with time: the acceptance by both parties that they are not on the same continuum, despite sharing the same space. The employee has to take his machine down the road and perform his duty diligently, the clock is against him; while, on the other end, what Leilei and Ming Chun have going for them, facing this yellow mechanical shovel is precisely the absence of a timer. Either that, or they have their own: the time of nature, of trees growing and getting old; the time of the movie revealing time itself.

In a country frenetically under construction, the displacement of pace, through father and son, becomes inevitably political, much like what is at stake in the movies of Jia Zhang-ke, one of the producers of Life After Life. The film, then, is not political in a confrontational way, alike a more revolutionary tradition (of which modern day China still officially claims legacy, but is so far from). Its political aspect is closer to Rancière’s idea of a “distribution of the sensible”, the sensible here being time.

But the city remains in the background. Life After Life is not about the changes one could observe almost in real time in the forms the town is taking. What is at play here is the porous divide, like a (spiritual) desert whose drought would move back and forth every day. Most people would not pay attention to it, unless you chose to stand there and put a halt to your occupations to witness the movement.

Through this politics of time, it is difficult not to see us, the spectators, mirrored in all those trees populating the film – at times as abundant extras, at other as unique main characters. Indeed those organic wooden beings are privileged witnesses to the life and death of humans. The father makes this remark under a majestic and monumental tree, probably several centuries old (my limited botanical knowledge limits my description to this point). People, as much as animals or spirits can take refuge or counsel in them, despite being constantly under threat by those same humans. They shelter birds, inhabited by the mother’s spirit as well. Later, a long shot is held on a goat whose throat is about to be cut in front of all the village; we stay there for a while, but we’ll never see, and hence never know, if the deed has been accomplished. Shortly after, a small herd of similar goats is standing inside a tree in one of the most strikingly surreal and comical images of the film, despite its accuracy. The way out of death’s hands is amongst branches, like fruits burgeoning in the spring.

The incumbent responsibility is then to protect them, the trees, even if with a small, almost pathetic picket fence. One of the young boy’s main tasks throughout the narrative is to move another small growing tree from the court of their cave-house to an open field. His mother entrusted him with this mission. This will become an adventure in itself, the said tree going from his initial courtyard through the city, in the back of a pick-up truck, to an open field in the wilderness. Its path is intricately linked with Leilei’s and his mother, and their fate is tied to ours: everything is moveable, displaceable, even a rock – which, in another poetical moment, is entitled to move to the city. The lengthy move of a tree over a pick-up truck (under the will of a wandering soul) and the arduous trip of a boulder evoke inevitably the figure of Sisyphus and his daunting, endless task: while some might see an opportunity to fall into deep depression and dire skepticism, others, in a sort of camusian move, might argue that the struggle itself is enough “to fill a man’s heart”.

The camera itself is given permission to experience its own Sisyphus story. At first one it feels like the mise en scène could become prisoner of its own static formalism, in a too obvious imitation of the aforementioned masters mentioned. But the pitfall is quickly by-passed, confirming what the director sets up early on: nothing is set in stone, especially not a shot. This freedom of the camera, switching from dead-pan to motion in an organic way, is however not matched in the way bodies are organized in space. There seems to be an uncalled for dichotomy between the mentioned fluidity, seeing an apparently untouched environment, and the highly staged stiffness of its actors – a bit as if Pedro Costa’s universe had entered Weerasetakul’s, but the encounter feels a bit forced. It’s damper put on an otherwise inventive mise en scène that even allows for touches of humor, which emerge from the smallest of events.

In this decisively immanent experience, perhaps there is nothing of the Greek mythological figure here, simply a spiritual circle, where all those small events, and people, an animals, and trees, and boulders, exist in a life after life.

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