A Ghost Story: Close-Up on Carol Salter's "Almost Heaven"

A new documentary about trainee undertakers in China is a document of worker displacement and alienation.
Michael Pattison

Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Carol Salter's Almost Heaven (2017) is playing October 9 - November 8, 2017 on MUBI in the United Kingdom.

“The mosquitos are extra toxic here. Maybe they’ve bitten the dead bodies.”

—Jin, Almost Heaven

 “I washed away your illness and pain. I wish you a good journey.”

—Ying, Almost Heaven 

It was by coincidence that I saw Almost Heaven and the new Blade Runner days apart. They’re worlds apart, to be clear. Denis Villeneuve’s $150 million-plus sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 Philip K. Dick adaptation is a big, bold film whose sense of melancholy and intimacy is embedded into its massive scale and haunting imagery—imagery which has, as a welcome refresher on what an audiovisual art form is meant to do, continued to move me a week later. Carol Salter’s documentary, about trainee undertakers in China, clocks in—by contrast­—at just longer than an hour, its observational mode scarcely registering a sense of design or scope.

But the two films, positioned at opposite ends of the budgetary spectrum, share some themes. Villeneuve’s picture riffs on what it means to be: sentience as both blessing (the innate miracle of life) and curse (exploitative, uncertain, cruelly finite). I thought back to the mournful interplay of these meditations, to the finality with which it renders an organism’s termination, when in Salter’s film a grieving woman reads aloud at a loved one’s funeral: “Separation by death is an inescapable part of life. Life is too short not to be cherished.” This is just the kind of quote-a-day truism in which grief finds popular expression, and yet it’s moving precisely because of its relatability, its simplicity—its implicit acknowledgement that life is, in light of its limited timespan, reducible to simultaneously miraculous and meaningless moments.

Salter’s mise en scène is less designed than found. To begin with, she confines herself to a succession of tripod-fixed compositions showing the sparsely-populated, bunker-like corridors of what appears to be a basement within the concrete-beige vicinity of the Ming Yang Mountain Funeral Home. It’s here, in Changsha, the capital of China’s Hunan province, where 17-year-old Ying Ling has arrived to undergo an apprenticeship as a mortician. As an opening inscription informs us, China provides few employment opportunities to young people; as a consequence, they must travel great distances to find work. Salter’s is a document of such displacement. And alienation: prompted by the above-mentioned funeral speech, Ying makes a phone call, laughing with embarrassment. “I want to be closer to you before it’s too late.”

Ying is isolated geographically. When she calls home, Salter films her from afar, framing her as a single figure in an empty room; unable to hear the other end of the line, the director encapsulates her subject’s sense of loneliness, of one-way communication. Ying’s request for a dispatch of winter clothes is denied on the grounds of cost. In another scene, Ying’s mentor, Jin Hau (a boy whose own youthful appearance prompts incredulity even from Ying), asks: “Can your parents help you find a new job?” Ying shakes her head.

In other moments, Salter emphasizes the repetitive, practice-makes-perfect(ion) nature of the job. The director takes her protagonist’s training procedure as the film’s structuring device, underscoring the cyclical performativity through which labor is developed, routinized and sold: preparing for an exam, she starts on mannequins before rehearsing on actors playing dead. The actual dead follow. Salter focuses, for large sections of her film, on periods of downtime; it’s as if Ying is being filmed backstage, in a green room—especially in scenes with Jin—which reinforces the idea of labor as a performance, as something alien from one’s natural disposition. “You should put emotion into it,” one supervisor suggests with regard to massaging a corpse.

Ying and Jin enjoy a chemistry that runs deeper than their teacher-apprentice relationship, and Salter’s film feels at its most intimate and focused when the director shoots their interactions, both in handheld close-up and in wider establishing shots, such as when they dine in a fast food joint outside of work hours. When Ying asks the web browser on her phone what to do if one is scared of ghosts, we sense she’s secretly asking Jin (who is happy to indulge her fear, exaggerated or otherwise). Scenes such as this play out in contrast to the more respectful distance with which Salter shoots client families, who have come to the funeral home to pay their final respects. Death as transaction: one group of relatives, cheeks still wet, is told they must pay for the service before the deceased can be cremated.

In Salter’s previously mentioned introductory sequence—of empty hallways, of non-spaces devoid of human presence—I was reminded of the penultimate scene in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century (2006), in which we move through a number of similarly and seemingly abandoned spaces inside a hospital, before the camera tracks and tilts its way to a close-up on a ventilation duct. Apichatpong’s sequence concludes a film already infused with an appreciably spiritual ambience, and is itself a suggestive, eerie arrangement of image-sound combinations. Salter’s sequence ends with an equally surreal but more quietly ghoulish image: that of a distinctly colorless corpse being lowered, face-up, on a scissor-lift.

At the end of his film, after that weird descent into something nonhuman and mechanical, Apichatpong cuts abruptly to a public park, and to a group of people energetically partaking in aerobics. Life, that ineluctable mode of being, goes on. At the end of Almost Heaven, Ying moves provinces, to Sichuan, to take up studies at a nursing school in Nanchong. More mannequins, but this time, with heart massages and CPR. Then a cut-to-black: life unfolds until it doesn’t. End credits provide suitable room to ponder this switch, before Salter adds a poetic endnote. All those heads, those students, the endless white uniforms, ascending and descending steps. We have transitioned from the individual to wide shots of a crowd: movement beyond the fixed frame, the finite timespan.

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