The reverberations of China’s breakneck industrialization echo through the barren landscapes of writer-director Zhang Hanyi’s Life After Life, a graceful ghost story that suggests death and progress go hand in hand. Zhang’s austere, auspicious debut feature shares a common lineage with producer Jia Zhang-ke’s own dramas about socioeconomic transition, even as its glacial, hypnotic pace, pervasive sense of hush, and unruffled approach to the supernatural are entirely its own. What happens when a ghost returns home to find that even that is beginning to crumble?
It all begins in the forest. Mingchung (Zhang Minjun) and his son, Leilei (Zhang Li), are gathering firewood when Leilei catches sight of a hare and heads off in pursuit. When he returns to his father several minutes, he now speaks with the voice of his dead mother, Xiuying. She tells Mingchung that she’s returned to complete one final task: to move the tree that still stands in the yard before their now-derelict former home. While Mingchung is too far back in the frame for his reaction to be registered, his voice betrays neither emotion nor surprise, merely commenting that he doesn’t even know if the tree is still alive or whether it’s gone the way of those of his dead uncle’s orchard. Yet irrespective of life or death, his assistance is immediately assured.
Given that the family’s village is to be flattened and its inhabitants re-housed in one vast building, life is a relative concept here anyway. The very landscape seems to be giving up the ghost, as dead trees look identical to live ones, the earth is riven with scars, and the air carries a sickly yellow hue. Maybe that’s why Xiuying’s reappearance is so smooth, as this place already feels like a strange netherworld, where goats take shelter in the omnipresent bare branches, figures emerge from the mist, and men skulk in dark holes, petrified of emerging. If all this will soon be dust, moving a tree from one doomed place to another is a more or less Sisyphean task, an idea that’s reflected in one striking, otherworldly sequence that shows a boulder making its way down the mountainside seemingly unaided.
This vision of post-industrial existence isn’t cheerful, but it never succumbs to the morbid, as flickers of hope shine through the gloom. Aside from the gratuitous spectacle of a goat being slowly suffocated, the film quietly asserts that life here may be harsh, but it’s not without warmth. Solidarity persists among those who remain in the village, as Mingchung looks after one family whose father is already working elsewhere and helps another carry a wardrobe into the abandoned building they plan to inhabit. There’s even a hint of humor when the couple’s efforts to transport the tree are interrupted by the wife taking her husband to see his reincarnated parents, one now a dog, one a bird in the forest, impossible to pick out from all the others.
Hope, or even tacit resistance, also lies in Mingchung’s unquestioning acceptance of the supernatural, an interpretation given credence by the fact that the Chinese establishment frowns on anything as traditional as a ghost story. When the past world crumbles around you and complying with the new is an obligation, there’s something paradoxically progressive about calmly preserving continuity, whether with a loved one, a set of values, or an entire way of life. The camera, too, seems to embody a perverse optimism, a restless need to examine everything regardless of its condition, either in the lengthy static shots that seek to drink in every tiny detail or the leisurely tracking shots that scour the increasingly homogenous landscape. And this undying desire to see and record is indeed rewarded, in image after image of a beauty born of pure severity: an impassive thousand-year-old tree bathed in wan light, white seeds dancing over a hilltop, the cliff-top view of an immense valley, a forked river of silver running through its center.
As neither man nor machine can be marshaled into moving the tree, it becomes clear that this will be a task for Mingchung and his family alone. Perhaps the task is just an excuse anyway, as the real mission here is to take advantage of an unlikely second chance so that the true meaning of relationships can be grasped. As Mingchung remarks upon seeing that a family of rodents has taken up residence in the aforementioned wardrobe, tradition says that mice get married before the New Year. When a new era finally dawns, if nothing else, you’ll want your loved ones near.