Life after Life – Zhang Hanyi (2016)

Zhang Hanyi’s Life after Life reminded me of a lot of things at once. I had a real flood of thoughts in my mind while watching the film, which I actually didn’t expect to be slow. I liked the premise of the film and I found it interesting that it was produced by Jia Zhang-ke, whose films The World (2004), Still Life (2006) and I wish I knew (2010) I thoroughly enjoyed. It could well be that this post will appear structureless, and abrupt. Maybe this is a good thing because, to me at least, it shows that the film has triggered a great deal of thoughts, which are only at the beginning of getting somewhere but which I’m still developing as the film grows in my head. I enjoy those films 🙂

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Let’s start with Zhang and Jia’s connection. You can see Jia’s influence in many scenes of the film. I would even go as far as saying that parts of Zhang’s film are very Jia Zhang-ke-esque (here’s a new term for you). First of all, there is the theme of people being displaced because of, for example, mining projects. Entire villages have to be moved. This change in environment, a change brought about by massive projects which force people to move away from their move, is also the main theme of Jia’s Still Life. But it’s not just the theme. It is also the way this subject is portrayed. I remember the dull colours in Jia’s film, and, of course, the slow pace and rhythm of the film. Zhang goes even further. I’ve been trying to think of a film which uses an even duller colour palette, but I cannot think of any.

The lack of colour is a strong indicator of what the film is about: death (I think we agree that the film’s title sounds less frightening). You can see it in every frame, and even though there is a scene in which people celebrate a the birth of a baby, it cannot stop the slow death of a village, of people, of orchards, of the past. From the first scene onwards, the film sets out to depict this slow death. This fits so well into the general opus of Slow Cinema. I have already written about the theme of death – overt or subtle – in a great deal of slow films. Life after Life is another great example, which reinforces my desire to really sit down and finally write something more substantial about the link between Slow Cinema and death. But I have two other articles to look after at the moment, so this will need to wait (good things come to those who wait, as always).

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Life reminded me strongly of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films, especially his last feature film Cemetery of Splendour with its curious focus on the other world, the world beyond ours. Zhang’s film is carving right into this niche. A boy runs after a hare. When he returns, his mother’s soul has taken over his body. She has borrowed his body, has returned in order to move a tree. Her (absent) presence establishes a link between the here and now, and the after. Even though the film is described as a ghost story, it’s not so much about ghosts than about reincarnation with the subtle hint that life after life is a better one (at least in this instance).

As far as I know, Life is Zhang’s debut feature, and from what I could see, he is a director to watch in future. He could become a major force in arthouse cinema. He shows a great deal of patience and of intuition, of complexity in simplicity all the while speaking out against the destructing policies of the Chinese government. He allows the film to develop in its own terms. He doesn’t force the narrative, he lets it breathe. There is certainly a lot of talent visible, and it’s worth following his trajectory in world cinema in the next few years. I’ve got a feeling that he has plenty stories to tell, possibly in a slow way.

 

Towards a poor cinema

The title of today’s post is not at all meant to be derogative. I like Slow Cinema too much for a defamation of it. I also strongly believe that poverty does not necessarily harm creativity. On the contrary. I’ve been there during my childhood and my youth. You learn to make do with what you have, and this always requires creativity. A lot of filmmakers demonstrate the same thing. Without funding, or only minimal funding which doesn’t cover the production costs at all, some create remarkable films. Slow Cinema directors are known for this. Not all of them make something out of nothing. Some are a bit luckier with receiving financial support than others. Yet, the general situation is pretty bleak for slow-film directors when it comes to financial support.

Those of you who have followed this blog from the beginning know that I’m always interested in looking into any possible roots of Slow Cinema. I do not agree with the current classification of being a descendant of Italian Neo-Realism. Nor with European modernist cinema in general. This approach is entirely focused on film, and shows the ongoing problem in academia: many researchers only think in their own fields instead of looking beyond their own horizons. Doing exactly this, though, shows just how rich Slow Cinema is, despite people’s persistent argument that there’s nothing to see, nothing to get out of. The films have a strong heritage in other art forms. I already spoke a bit about painting, and I still stand by what I said. Lav Diaz is not the only one who used to paint before he turned to filmmaking. I think Apichatpong Weerasethakul used to paint as well (I think I read this in a recent interview). They may be an exception from the rule, but they make for an intriguing study of the ways in which Slow Cinema and other art forms converge.

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By way of diversion, I have reached the field of theatre. It started with a book on Polish post-trauma theatre, which was superb and similar to what I’ve been writing about Lav Diaz’s films in my thesis. In fact, there were so many similarities that I was glad I hadn’t read the book before submitting my thesis. It could have led to the Homer Simpson “NO!” effect. I was particularly taken by the two theatre directors Jerzy Grotowski and Tadeusz Kantor. The latter’s “Theatre of Death” shows similarities to the three Lav Diaz films I have studied, but unfortunately cannot be applied to any other director I have studied so far in the context of Slow Cinema. But Grotowski is an interesting reference point. It was he who wrote the short but groundbreaking essay “Towards a poor theatre” in the mid-1960s.

I want to highlight no more than two aspects of Grotowski’s theatre and his vision of what theatre should be like. I possibly do not have to go into detail about the overall aesthetic of a “poor” theatre. Everything is reduced to a minimum. Perhaps Tarr’s The Turin Horse (2011) may be a good example. Yet it’s by no means the prime example. In slow films, in general, the mise-en-scène is minimalistic. The frames have been emptied of distracting elements. Very often you only see the very basics. And that is, in fact, all you need.

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This is also what Grotowski thought. Reducing the mise-en-scene to a mere minimum, you’re left with two elements which need to be strong: space and acting. As far as space is concerned, I’m not just speaking about what is visible. In a film (or a theatre play for that matter) what is not visible, but present nevertheless, is immensely important, and is, in some cases, even what a film is about. I’d say that Apichatpong’s Cemetery of Splendour is a good example.

If you reduce the mise-en-scene to a minimum, then you have, I believe, a lot more options you can play with, precisely because nothing is certain for the audience. Absent presence is a wonderful means to speak about loss, loneliness, death, longing, haunting – all those elements play a major role in Slow Cinema.

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A second element whose importance is heightened in a “poor” theatre is acting. Grotowski placed particular emphasis on acting. The actors/actresses were so important because they had to fill the gaps the mise-en-scene left them with. They had to embody a lot more than just a role. Now, in many slow films, the term “acting” is perhaps not ideal. Very often, non-professional “actors” are used. In several cases, they do not even act, but play themselves. They are themselves. In other cases, actors and actresses live their roles. They embody the person they are meant to be on-screen. Lav Diaz’s films are a superb example for this, especially Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012). Diaz’s films would fall apart if it wasn’t for the strong acting, for the at times breathtaking behaviour of actors and actresses who merge with their own selves.

Grotowski advocated something for theatre which can today be detected in slow films, which, in fact, are main characteristics of Slow cinema. Once more, I do not believe that it is the long-take which is the main characteristic. This point is once more an example of the narrow thinking of certain scholars. There are similarities between the aesthetics of Slow Cinema and other art forms. These may not be the most known advocacies but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take them into account when looking into the aesthetics of films. I’d be interested in knowing how many filmmakers consciously know about Grotowski and his poor theatre. It would be an interesting influence on films.

Cemetery of Splendour – Apichatpong Weerasethakul (2015)

I need to make a general observation about Apichatpong Weerasethakul first before I go into detail about his new (and wonderful) film Cemetery of Splendour (2015), his Cannes entry five years after he won the Palme d’Or with Uncle Boonmee who can recall his past livesApichatpong is very often regarded as one main player in the field of Slow Cinema. It is true that especially his early films are very slow and use the long-take long shot combination with little dialogue attached to it. Since Uncle Boonmee, however, Apichatpong is moving away from those strict Slow Cinema aesthetics. This doesn’t mean that his films are not slow. They are, but his films are less strictly Slow Cinema. His films have shifted seamlessly into the broad category of arthouse cinema, which is always slower than the average film. I noticed this shift when I watched Mekong Hotel in 2012, and Cemetery of Splendour is another example. So I’m not even sure whether this post should be on this site or not. I also feel as if I need to point (once more!) to the critics who all said that Cemetery of Splendour was Apichatpong’s best film – and at the same time his most accessible. Again, accessibility guarantees success with critics, as we have seen with Lav Diaz before. Just don’t give critics a film they need to puzzle together.

I used this phrase in my previous post already: “regardless of its pace” – Cemetery of Splendour is a wonderful film. It has a dreamy, meditative atmosphere around it. Jen, Apichatpong’s all-time muse, tends to a soldier suffering from an unexplainable sleep sickness. As usual in the director’s films, it is at some point difficult to distinguish between reality and dream. The line between the two couldn’t be thinner. I don’t agree to the comment that Cemetery of Splendour is Apichatpong’s most accessible film. Story-wise it is, perhaps, because what is happening to the soldiers is explained to the viewer. I found it a bit disappointing. I would have rather kept wondering what went on. On the other hand, it worked nicely and it made the story even more intriguing (and no, I’m not saying what it is!). But this didn’t make clear what was real and what was just a dream or a hallucination, which, I find, also contributes to the respective accessibility of a film. If you think you have understood the story but actually cannot tell right from wrong, accessibility is a relative term.

I saw a brief interview with Apichatpong on French-German channel ARTE in which he explained a few things about the now well-known lamps he used in his films. I loved every single scene which contained those lamps. I found them fascinating, and they had something mysterious and supernatural to them. Something that helped blur the line between reality and dream, between life and death. Apichatpong said that he had read something about the link between light, memory and sleep – a fascinating point I would love to investigate further.

I’m not entirely sure whether it has been written about already somewhere. I noticed explicit references to Tsai Ming-liang and his films. During the screening I wondered whether this was intended (which I believe it was), or whether it was completely incidental. There are three references; Jen washing the body of a sleeping soldier called Itt (Tsai’s I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone), Jen and Itt in the cinema, filmed from behind so that we can see the cinema screen as well as the back of their heads (Tsai’s Goodby Dragon Inn) and a specific shot of escalators in the cinema, which had, to me, strong reminiscences of Tsai’s shots of interior architecture in pretty much all of his films. An homage to the Taiwanese director? Perhaps.

In any case, Cemetery of Splendour contains quite a bit of food for thought again. There was this scene in which Jen says that she doesn’t like Americans because they are poor. She prefers Europeans because it is the Europeans who live the American dream. Interesting proposition, which led me to all kinds of thoughts. There is also a nice point about the preference of stone sculptures showing skeletons over a golden palace with a bathroom made of marble. Perhaps stone, even though it is always regarded as cold, is closer to real life?

I couldn’t help but think that Cemetery of Splendour is perhaps Apichatpong’s most personal film. Perhaps not for himself, but for Jen, the main character and actress. It was a film very much tailored to her and her life story; a great thing to do in a way after many many years of collaboration. The viewer certainly gets to know Jen better than in Apichatpong’s previous films, and it feels as though we’re taking a unique trip with her through dreams and hallucinations. Or maybe we don’t. Who knows that with Apichatpong’s films!?

Cemetery of Splendour is perhaps not the director’s best film. I still favour Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Nevertheless, the film is another great demonstration of the skills of the Thai filmmaker. The visuals are at times superb. The story is fascinating and possibly more engaging than that of his previous films. Maybe that’s why critics liked the film more. The story is progressing easier. There’s less stagnation than in say, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. This may all be well for some people, but there is also a scene, for instance, towards the very end which screams of commercial horror. It neither fit nor was it in any way useful to the story. It was a scene that could have been seen in a commercial film, i.e. it could have easily been cut in Apichatpong’s film. Why did he leave it in? I hope there wasn’t a pressure point for him, because despite so many producers from around the world involved in his filmmaking now, he has so far remained independent in his style. I hope it remains this way.