"Almost Heaven" – a tender coming-of-age documentary about young undertakers at a funeral home in Hunan Province.
Like many teenagers who have to move to urban areas for work, 17-year-old Ying Ling left the village where she grew up to become an undertaker at one of China’s largest funeral homes in Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province. While training to qualify, she lives in the shared dormitory and learns from the elders (who are in fact only a couple of years older). The documentary’s focus on undertakers and its frank depiction of dead bodies on screen are doubtless unusual, but at no time does it feel disrespectful or inappropriate. There are even some moments of humour, which may well turn out to be the most memorable of this year’s Berlinale. For example, at one point Ying Ling’s classmate is lying on the undertaker’s table, playing the role of the corpse during a practice funeral. Half-way through the ceremony, the initially silent “corpse” suddenly opens his mouth to jokingly complain that his face has been rubbed for too long and that his arm was not massaged affectionately enough. The abrupt “revival” of the dead and the “corpse’s” witty remarks cause the audience to burst out laughing. This is precisely where the film’s magic lies; for all that it pays due respect to death, it equally celebrates and appreciates the joy of life.
It is impressive that the British filmmaker Carol Salter managed to obtain permission from the funeral directors and their clients. In a documentary which elegantly handles some of life’s most difficult themes, we see how an extended machine arm lifts a coffin upwards to the ceremonial room, as if reaching up into celestial space; how funeral readings are rehearsed; how different families express their feelings; how prices are negotiated next to the deceased, and how undertakers attempt to kill mosquitos with an electric fly swat. We also get to see close-ups of the deceased, including shots of their toe nails being trimmed, their faces being made up, their arms being wiped and their hair being combed. The film also provides close-up shots of living bodies, with Ying Ling asking obsessive questions about her colleague’s extra-long eye lashes and the ritualistic putting-on and taking-off of plastic gloves.
I discussed this film in great detail with my fellow film critics after the press screening, and we were all happy to admit that we had wept during the film. It is difficult to explain our tears. Maybe it is because the film struck a chord in our hearts when we saw the departure of loved ones? Or perhaps we are not used to contemplating the mortality of our bodies and existence on earth? Almost Heaven juxtaposes life and death, and it seems as if we’ve almost forgotten that this is also how nature presents life to us.