Life After Life
aka 枝繁叶茂 aka Zhi Fan Ye Mao
Written and directed by Zhang Hanyi
In a desolate landscape wracked by the cruelty of winter, a dying community slated for removal for industrialization is the site of a haunting ghost story. Life After Life presents a world where a wife returns from beyond the grave for a mission of moving a tree that will help guide her soul into her next life. To do so she possesses the body of her young son, and her husband must then embark on her quest.
Life After Life is slow and methodical. The scenes are long takes, the characters pause for long beats between line deliveries, and even the plot takes a while to get going thanks to a series of setbacks and side quests. Ming Chun (Zhang Mingjun) is basically a lost family provider, what is left of his ancestral community is being relocated, his daughter has already moved away to the big city, and his son is frustrated and eager to run off himself. Ming Chun seems like he’s wandering alone, but soon the spirit of his late wife possesses his son, and finally he has a purpose even if her return doesn’t magically turn him energetic.
Son Leilie’s (Zhang Li) entire body language changes when he’s possessed by the spirit of Xiuying. He goes from a confident and angry young make to a soft-spoken and slumped figure, completely transforming into a new character. It’s also obvious as to why Xiuying and Ming Chun were perfect for each other, they both have the same slow personality that gels well. Xiuying needs a tree that they planted as newlyweds moved so it will help her spirit in the afterlife, as strange trees that don’t know you well enough run the risk of assigning you a less ideal new life. Leilie being possessed by Xiuying is accepted without question by everyone they encounter, which helped speed up scenes without reconvincing everyone. Ming Chung and Xiuying even visit Ming Chun’s parents in their next lives, his father is now a dog while his mother is a bird.
The crumbling cave house structures of the old community work with the bleak winter landscape to help strip all color from the frames, only the clothes worn by Leilie seem to have any sort of pop. The community is already the walking dead, but the countryside has preceded it (it’s implied the orchards were poisoned by industrial pollutants). Despite the dawdling pace, there are bits of life and whimsy. We see a giant rock wiggling down the side of the mountain, but it’s not until our heroes drive by it that we see it is because several workers are working the rock downhill via wiggling it with ropes. Later we see Ming Chun and Xiuying moving the tree by a similar method, both bringing to mind mythological tales.
Zhang Hanyi’s debut isn’t for everyone, it’s definitively art house. But it’s really good at doing what it wants to do, capture an eerie landscape and story with echoes of the industrialization of China with the old clashing with the new, presented from a rural slow-paced direction. And as one of our criteria is judging films on if they do what they want to do, Life After Life knocks that out of the park. As much fun as all the slow paced styling is, by the time they were getting around to moving the tree I was already fine with the town being bulldozed over. Life has already passed them by, maybe the moved tree can help the community find their way in the big city, or at least stop pausing for 30 seconds after every sentence. The low energy scenes were in complete contrast with the film I saw directly afterwards at SFIFF, The Incredible Jessica James, which was so full of energy and color and life that it was like cinematic whiplash! But that’s another review…
(I’ll also put in a warning that they show real animals being killed as a goat is killed for dinner, so be warned if you are like me and not into that stuff! Yep, the first two films I saw at SFIFF had dead animals in them, lucky me!)
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