Nominated for Best Documentary at the 67th Berlin Film Festival, Carol Salter’s feature debut welcomes us with an intertitle. “In China, job opportunities are limited for teenagers.” This is then followed with multiple shots of vast, wide open corridors, silent doorways and car parks before being interrupted by an interaction between two extremely young co-workers discussing mosquito bites. It is then that we realise that these stiflingly quiet and desolate surroundings belong to a funeral home.
17-year-old Ying Ling works at the Ming Yang Mountain Funeral Home, far from home, at which cadavers arrive and depart via a hydraulic lift in the car park. In order to pass her exams and progress within the company, she must learn how to prep and cleanse a body before it can be viewed by a grieving family. One could argue a harrowing prospect for a such a sweet and young girl, one who is afraid of ghosts, made all the more understandable given the nature of the job and the eerie labyrinthine place of work.
Juxtaposing these expanses of space with tight close-ups of the frequently worried expression on her subject’s face, Salter elicits a shared social and psychological space. We watch as this kid – who observes everything, works 24-hour shifts, and whose cruel mother refuses to let her return home even for winter clothes – as she advances in her career whereby one day she is charged with keeping the plant life alive, before death becomes her one and only daily job. Refreshingly, these teenagers don’t see their future in the dead and yet by the documentary’s denouement, this is exactly where Ying Ling’s colleague Jin Hua finds his business.
Their friendship is an uplifting aspect of an otherwise uneasy watch, although humour does punctuate the documentary throughout. It needs to. Ying Ling and Jin Hua do everything together – live, eat, laugh, share days off, prepare the dead, and the affection between them is sweetly endearing; it rivals siblinghood yet teeters on something more. Jin Hia is Ying Ling’s beacon, her little piece of heaven amid the depressing, mosquito-pestered mortuary.
As for the funeral home itself, it’s ran as mostly highly efficient businesses are; preoccupied with making money, receiving cash and occasionally berating its staff. There’s a coldness to it, perpetuated by the long takes and the silence, and while respect is paid to the dearly departed, the same can’t be said for the living as money disputes rear their ugly heads during the most unfortunate moments.
What follows the second half is a number of harrowing scenes in which blood violently stains some sheets and shrouds and we, along with, Ying Ling, are confronted with the visceral horror of death and the wailing sorrow and melancholy of grief. While Salter’s camera stays on the periphery of those scenes, and can never be accused of being disrespectful, it nevertheless feels intrusive. Grief and mourning is such a private experience, having a camera record these moments feels almost voyeuristic in their candidness.
That said, it never strays into being overtly maudlin. Almost Heaven is an observational coming-of-age documentary where childhood is slowly diminished (in 75 short minutes) by approaching adulthood, and life and death is played out quite literally between takes. It is a gentile rumination on migratory workers, a reflection of life, death, and all the things in between.