A 17-year-old from the countryside, working as a trainee mortician in one of China’s largest funeral homes. That doesn’t sound like an uplifting topic, yet Carol Salter’s award winning film, Almost Heaven, depicts a unique and engaging story. Though death, corpses and the deceased are in almost every frame of this observational documentary, it is the humanity of protagonist Ying Ling which shines through the strongest. Unbridled access has made way for a multi-layered look into a life which feels utterly alien and strangely familiar at the same time.
The subject of Almost Heaven, death, is a taboo topic in China. It is feared that to even speak of death will bring bad luck. The sight of a dead body, a bad omen. However, there is also an overwhelming shortage of jobs for young people in China, which is how Ling found herself to be training as a mortician — far from her dream job, and geographically far from home, she lives alone in shared accommodation. Salter essentially lived with Ling throughout the shoot and viewers are privy to the most private moments in her life as she struggles with her new career. Almost Heaven allows full access into both the funeral home and Ling’s life, which is the film’s biggest strength.
One of the first shots in Salter’s film reappears several times throughout: a wide of the empty warehouse-like space where the bodies of the deceased are lowered down from the ceiling on platforms. They are raised up again, presumably to a different area of the funeral home, once the morticians are finished working on them. The mechanical raising and lowering feels almost like science fiction, and there’s an implication of the bodies being taken to a new level, their next life? Clearly, though, the process is simply a way of moving bodies around the building, and there is a bizarre and uncanny symbolism to the physical movement of taking the deceased “upstairs.”
From the outset, Salter makes it known that this is a place which radiates sadness, but also the mundanity and repetition of life. Ling, though at first scared and saddened by her role in washing, dressing and disposing of the deceased, becomes bored by the routine of her work. Even death can become tedious when one deals with it every day.
Though the work is bleak, there are glimpses of camaraderie and the beginnings of friendship between Ling and a fellow trainee mortician. The two are paired together to practise washing the body properly, setting up viewings and speaking to the mourning family. These are the only scenes of humour throughout Almost Heaven and they speak volumes about the need for connection and companionship, especially in a job where death is quite literally around every corner. The two of them laugh together at awkward moments, share food at a nearby restaurant and quietly discuss the afterlife (Ling has a fear of ghosts, which only adds another layer of intrigue as to why she is working in a funeral home).
In an otherwise relatively plot-less purely observational documentary, there is one significant point of narrative tension — Ling’s sole friend and co-trainee tells her that he is leaving to go back home. There are no other jobs for him in the city, and he doesn’t want to work in the funeral home anymore. Though much of their friendship is communicated nonverbally, this is clearly a huge blow for Ling. Her loss is articulated while she’s alone at work, now somber instead of giggling or chatting.
Outside of the workplace, Salter’s camera records Ling in her threadbare room, where she calls her parents from her bed on the floor. She, like most teenagers, speaks to her mother for a few minutes before the two of them begin to argue — a universal feeling. These scenes reiterates how alone Ling is in the world. Sitting alone amongst a pile of blankets, in a large grey room, she has hung up on the only people she talks to apart from work colleagues. She cuts a small figure in the cold room, with her brightly coloured blankets being a happy distraction from the depressingly blank walls and floor. When comparing Ling in her work environment to her equally uncomfortable leisure time (of which she has little), Salter consistently communicates that this is not a life for anyone, let alone a 17-year-old girl. It’s far more effective than a voice-over, or even Ling talking to camera. Salter’s strength is that she keeps silent and lets scenes play out in front of her without interference. The result is an impressive observational documentary.
Though Salter’s film shines a light on economic issues and the hardships facing the younger generations in China looking for work, Almost Heaven is at its best when examining Ying Ling’s journey, her loneliness and her hope for the future. She’s a resilient and likable character; someone that viewers can identify with. By gaining such unlimited access to her subject’s life, Salter has created a truly remarkable portrait of a young woman at a turning point in her life.
Becky Kukla (@kuklamoo) spends her days working in TV and writing about cinema and feminism. Based in London, she also likes drinking gin, re-watching ‘The X Files’ and writing about on-screen representation at femphile.com. She’s also a regular contributor at Bitch Flicks and Film Inquiry.