Directed by Li Ruijun
A burst of vibrant red instantaneously flies across the screen, then a hand paints some white over it in the shape of a crane. Thank you, Li Ruijun, for giving us a movie with an aura that we the audience can love from the beginning. Anyway, that hand belongs to an old man in rural China who’s putting the finishing touches on what looks like a wooden airplane while his grandchildren are noisily playing around him. It’s a part of a charming coexistence, the grandfathers hang out on the street and talk about their off-screen wives while the grandchildren play in the sand by a lake. The sun glares, a warm autumn compared to local standards.
That’s until the adults come along, moving the kids from one farm to another, talking about what they’re going to do to their aging parents, changing their traditions and local landscapes. I make it sound tragic but we’re seeing this movie with the eyes of the children, their parents’ interferences therefore seeming like annoyances with occasional sadness.
Let’s return to the first scene with the red wooden airplane, which is actually a coffin that the grandfather has made for one of his friends. I’m assuming that his generation carries the same beliefs as he does, but according to him the only way to a proper afterlife is to be buried, his preserved body and soul will be carried by a crane. Burials are ‘strongly discouraged’ in favour of cremation, but the grandfather tries to slip one coffin or two as an act of subversion within an oppressive new order. How much you can read into ‘subversion’ is up to you. There’s this act, and another involving the grandfather and his grandson covering up chimneys to somehow let the residents know what it’s like to be cremated.
This movie has its slow moments. But otherwise it shows this connection between grandfathers and their grandchildren despite having the mostly oppressive parents between them. And the parents’ generation isn’t fully demonized neither, since they also take part in some of the traditions. Some of them fight for their parents’ right for a burial in one of many heart-wrenching scenes. It ends with a beautiful elegy, not losing its colour and bittersweet innocence.