From an aesthetically deadpan plot, sombre story, austere theatricals, bleak moods, grey expression and dreamlike picturisation, to a landscape of socially and culturally intimidating times wherein breathe characters utterly overwhelmed by the ideas of change, adaptability, growth and prosperity vis-à-vis the notions of continuity, connectivity, loss, detachment, alienation and uncertainty, the drama offers a multifaceted world vibrating on screen without letting the mind to drag itself away from the world existing beyond the contours of cinematography.
This is a debut film by its director, Zhang Hanyi, who along with its producer, Jia Zhang-ke–experienced in his field–has triumphed in displaying how they have their finger on the pulse of the idea of socio-cultural change with an eye to penetrate vertically into the souls of individuals experiencing the same. They seem to recount the story, which from its start unfolds itself in a bizarre but convincing fashion till the curtain falls. All the words suggestive of liveliness, colour, spice, piquancy, zest, vibrancy, buoyancy, ribaldry, exuberance etc seem to have been thrown into the pit of anonymity by both these souls with a solemn vow of presenting that life of North Western China’s segments that are shown sandwiched between the forces of push and pull, resistance and change, fluidity and repulsion–the ideas generated as the consequence of the industrialisation the region is experiencing presently. Such a subject could possibly attract the treatment that has been given to shape this movie by its creators.
The very first dialogue of the movie uttered by the fifth uncle of the protagonist, “Beyond my orchard I could see a mountain and beyond that, a river. I knew I had to cross the river…” as the English subtitle goes, sets the stage for the idea of the movie to travel ahead. It was enough to transport me from the movie–Life After Life–to Alfred Tennyson’s poem Crossing the Bar’s these lines: Twilight and evening bell/And after that the dark/And may there be no sadness of farewell/When I embark. I found myself trapped by the thought of life and death at the outset. The old man suggests that he is going to die soon as the time has approached because he is like trees, which (as they stand in a bleak orchard) seem to be dead to him. Young man, the protagonist–Mingchun–negates this by emphasising that it is the winter that has denuded trees of leaves, twigs and flowers and that greenery would return with the spring. The old man does not agree to his explanation. Only in another scene, the old man is shown to be carried in a coffin. But it is just the prologue.
It is a first person narrative. Leilei, a boy in his teens, tells the story. The protagonist of the movie–Mingchun–along with Leilei–his son, is shown to talk to him in a rural hinterland while they are busy collecting kindling for their fireplace.
Leilei is an unruly soul, whose interest is piqued by an urban styled life compared to the hopeless life of the cave-house dwelling and rural outlook his father provided him; hence not in a mood to work as a carer but prefers to work on a crane in the town as men do–his perception of men’s job. Meanwhile, a rabbit squeaks nearby, and Leilei follows the rabbit; while Mingchun calls him to return. Leilei does return but having undergone an amazing spiritual metamorphosis. His dead mother has replaced his soul with hers in his body. Now both, the husband and the wife–Mingchun and Xiuying–are in front of each other. To Mingchun’s question as to why she had returned to human world, she replies “I just want the tree moved. That’s why I came for.” Yes, she has returned to move the tree that still stands in the yard before their now-forlorn former home. Mingchun, with the help of his newly returned wife, undertakes the task of moving the tree from the yard, but one or the other way, fails. Once the group of people he hires refuses to uproot the tree due to its undesired size. The other time a crane is brought, but the crane-man avoids risking his crane being blown up by the suspected mines under the soil; hence leaves. When push comes to shove, he takes the task of uprooting and moving the tree himself with Xiuying’s help. The moment the tree is shifted to the designated place, Xiuying dies, while Mingchun takes her (Leilei’s body) over his shoulders and keeps calling his son–Leilei, Leilei, Leiei–because, as his wife had suggested, if he kept calling him after she died, Leilei would return to the world. Mingchun keeps calling his son, and the movie ends. It is the New Year’s Eve.
The story revolves around Shaanxi province of China undergoing the transition of industrialisation. The government-led rural-urban migration leads to multifaceted issues erupting during the wave of urbanisation, generally called peri-urbanisation. People are led to shift from rural areas to urban pockets with an opportunity to get hold of a tenement block designated for them. In the process, their houses are flattened for industries to be constructed therein, but the planning might lead to slums and shanties getting birth, which furthers the widening of gaps between the urban populace and the rural ones, who find themselves at a loss due to lack of skills to work in an industrial zone and is confronted primarily with the issues of survival and uncertainty.
It is a threatening environment. In a scene, while Mingchun and Xiuying move up the hill in their vehicle, they come across a tractor, which opens it blades wide and follows them from the top as if going to smash them, and they keep moving down backwards as there is narrow space for them to go up, till at a turn the tractor finds space and leaves smoothly. Identically, the scene wherein goats are shown on the top of a huge denuded tree, presents more than it shows. It shows two entities to be sacrificed: goats for human consumption, while trees for concrete buildings. Same is depicted through Mingchun’s family and Xiuying’s relatives, who have chosen to live in kind of cave-houses. Watching the movie, I could relate it to my first-hand experience of Xi’an–the capital of Shaanxi province–back in 2010 with conditions not far different from the ones displayed in this movie. The gap has been vehemently highlighted in the movie. The fellow Mingchun hires for uprooting the tree refuses to do so remarking that the roots of the tree must be the size of the crown of the tree visible above the soil; hence hard to be pulled up. This is what the story is all about.
It is not told, but it appears that it was Xiuying–Leilei’s mother and Mingchun’s wife–who had appeared in guise of a rabbit. In Chinese culture, rabbit symbolises several things that Xiuying and other people display throughout the movie. A rabbit symbolises new birth, and we witness the idea of reincarnation of Mingchun’s father as a dog and mother as a bird coupled with Xiuying returning to life after death. A rabbit enjoys many a hideout; so does Xiuying, one in the next world, then the current human world in her son’s body. Rabbits live in holes, and many people in the movie live in cave-houses including Mingchun and Xiuying’s relatives. A rabbit symbolises self-protection. So does Xiuying by preferring to stay in her son’s body for fear of being known. A rabbit shows growth. Xiuying returns in Mingchun’s life with a motive to re-plant a tree–symbol of growth. Several threads connect the symbol of the rabbit with the story, especially Xiuying.
Undoubtedly, the movie exquisitely demonstrates a world of alienation. Existentialists maintain that hell is within you. So is the case with Mingchun’s uncle when he expresses his views in his orchard about life and death. Same is relevant to Xiuying’s relatives, who try to justify living in hole-houses. It is what Sartre’s main character in Nausea does when he is unable to pick a crumpled paper from the street as the external world intimidates him. Alienation is shown to an extreme psychologically, as it strips human exchange off emotions where they are needed the most.
Mingchun does not get astonished or surprised to see his wife’s return from death; so is the response from Xiuying’s brother (which is equally an expression of detachment) and her mother. Her father is so alienated that he even prefers silence, not knowing that his daughter had returned from the underworld with a motive to give life to only one tree because it was a gift to her from him–her father. Then the alienation comes to impress itself upon our minds when Mingchun and Xiuying fail in moving the tree, firstly the human support fails them and then the machine (crane). They find themselves deprived of required means to do an understandably simple task, which has over the time turned out to be a Herculean one. Mingchun finds the society capable of erecting huge tenement blocks with huge machines constructing power plants but not of use to them for moving a tree from the yard of their house. Paradox? Alienation. Detachment. Angst. And more interesting is the scene wherein Mingchun and Xiuying stand round a fairly huge tree protected by an iron net. He says to her “You can ask this tree for your next life. It’s lived longer than our tree.” She replies “This tree doesn’t know me.” He emphasises that the tree is older than her age, so must know her. She makes it a point that trees cannot know the likes of all people, and that they know only the rich. At this, he tells her that their own tree is better because that was grown in their yard and it knows her very well. The scene is on the one hand suggestive of the concept of alienation, and on the other, it highlights the philosophy of group dynamics and importance of social cohesion and togetherness that the Chinese prefer over individual dynamics, which has also been identified by critics of Chinese economic policies as one of the ideas behind China not adopting industrialisation earlier. Nonetheless, the reference to rich people could be a reference to Marx’s idea of exploitation, which again leads to socio-political alienation.
But against all this discussion, what does the tree symbolise? Does it suggest that urbanisation could prove itself as a means to destruction of a fertile life that exists in the rural hinterlands, wherein spruces, pines full of twigs and flowers fill the earth with colour and life, where birds twitter, winds croon and existence in its prime breathes with the beats of nature? One could see why a dead woman, unlike the oblivious living souls, having returned to human life focuses only on removing a tree. The unexpected occurs. The undesired approaches us. With pain comes happiness. With death breathes life. The winter of tyranny has to offer space to spring of happiness for its twigs to sprout. The cycle continues unabated. The movie hits the mark.