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.

 

Poetic Cinema

I have recently watched Jia Zhang-ke’s wonderful and impressive piece I Wish I Knew (2010), and a thought popped into my head. First of all, I highly recommend Jia’s work. The World is an equally impressive work, so is Still Life. As he told JP Carpio in an interview, Lav Diaz admires Jia for his dedication to making films his way without letting his work be influenced by the state.

Anyway, there was this fantastic slow shot fairly at the beginning of the film, which struck me.

I Wish I Knew (2010)

It triggered my interest in photography, and my curiosity as to how various art forms are connected to form a unique experience for the viewer. This is especially true but not exclusive to Slow Cinema.

During my research, I have come across Maya Deren and her contribution to the Film and Poetry symposium in 1953 at which she caused controversy with her remark about film having a horizontal and a vertical axis. The vertical axis is the poetic axis. It’s the axis of mood, of feeling. It is the axis that allows the viewer a more in-depth perspective on the artwork.

If I follow the strand from the film and poetry symposium, I cannnot help thinking that Slow Cinema should, in effect, be called Poetic Cinema.

Poetry is a very personal work. It comes from the soul of the artist, and is often an expression of an artist’s deep feelings for something; his or her love for someone, or for a country, for a specific region, for the moonlight. There is an endless list.

We all had to recite poetry at school I suppose. If you think back to that time, what exactly comes to your mind about the way you recited poetry?

It was surely a slow recital. And it was a slow recital because only slowness would have transmitted a sense of the artist’s soul, of his feelings, even of his thinking. If you rushed through a poem without taking your time to read through the lines and without trying to grasp the artist’s soul in it, then you missed the entire piece. You may have read or recited a poem, but you haven’t actually lived it. This reminds me of a lengthy scene in Diaz’s Encantos when Teodoro recites a poem written by Hamin, the main protagonist in the film. It’s a long sequence, and it fits exactly to my way of seeing Slow Cinema: it’s Poetic Cinema.

Besides, whenever documentaries are ‘slow’, we call them ‘poetic’, and not slow. So why should feature films be treated differently? They share the same aesthetics.