Little money, plenty of bills
SLIT: The story of two men striving to pay unexpected hospital bills shows the breaking time in modern China.
In the opening of Life Is A Belief the movie is dedicated to "you and me, the everyday people who work and strive to live here in the world". It is a fitting summary of this documentary's morality, an anti-romantic vision of life's unpredictability and the endless pursuit of existence, which does not offer ideals of comfort. The film nevertheless creates a holistic vision in which situations are portrayed with their many trials, and suffering is put into a bittersweet and universal life cycle. This is the latest film from Chinese director Han Xiao, whose previous film Himalaya: Ladder to Paradise (2015) explored the life of the Sherpas who take climbers to the top of Mount Everest. Helping others in their self-glorifying ambitions to conquer nature is far from the main characters in life Life Is A Belief, who have no power other than to scrape together money so the family can keep going.
At the center of the film are two men who are both responsible for the welfare of their families, a responsibility that becomes a burdensome burden. Huang Zhongjian is a 26-year-old who moved from Foshan, a city on the outskirts of Guandong, ten years ago to work as a construction worker. We get intimate insights into the small and cramped apartment - packed with kitchenware and junk - that he shares with wife Zhang Xuefei as they argue and wait for the second child to announce his arrival. The marriage had a narrow birth: The parents were against the relationship, they were skeptical of Huang's ability to provide adequate financial support - especially in a situation where the demographic imbalance means that there are many more suitable young people than wife subjects.
Aheti, on the other hand, is a 66-year-old salmaker living in the countryside of the Xinjiang Uigur Autonomous Region in northwestern China - the core area of the Muslim Uyghur minority. He usually has to make twenty halls every year to make ends meet, but now orders are getting fewer as more and more motorcycles are running, so the future of the business is uncertain.
The paths of these two men, who live in very different worlds, are never crossed, but the challenges they face mirror each other in ways that indicate that the quality of life in China as such is threatened because the intergenerational ties are breaking down. Their daily financial challenges are drastically amplified when fate surprises those with family health problems that require costly surgeries. The joy Huang and his wife experience when the baby is born is mixed with worry and sorrow over the news that the baby has a congenital heart defect that must be operated within two weeks. To avoid the humiliation of asking the parents-in-law for a loan, Huang calls acquaintances to raise the money.
At the center of the film are two men who are both responsible for the welfare of their families, a responsibility that becomes a burdensome burden.
Aheti is just as desperate in his attempt to cough up a larger sum in a hurry, as his nephew needs a kidney transplant. Money collectors are already after him because of a loan taken by his lost son in the past. "Allah wants to find a solution," Aheti tries to say to himself. In both men's lives, the social pressure to pay the bills with their own help nourishes during marital problems, since the main characters are confronted with what is expected of a man.
Urbanization and the weathering of the traditions that would bind the generations together make it clear that networks and social support systems are weakening in line with family stability. Huang learns martial arts, but we are told that this tradition is increasingly abandoned by the youth, who are more materialistic. Foshan is also the venue for the traditional lion dance, which is performed to bring good luck. At one point, this costume-clad fortune-telling custom emerges - one of the few rituals the couple can cling to. Since moving to the city at a young age in search of financial prosperity, Huang has little help in the tricky situation he's balancing.
Aheti's eldest son has resigned and does not respond when his father calls him in an attempt to get him home to help his family. A consumer loan seems like the only option left, which only adds to the concern that the Salmakeri, a craft that has been passed from father to son over six generations, is about to be outdated and disappear. We follow Aheti with his homemade goods in a market where two military halls are ordered by a customer who expresses great admiration for the extinct craft. The final fate of the families in these intertwined narratives is made consciously open and without conclusions. In many ways, the economic and personal dilemmas we face give a rather disappointing picture of a China that can be seen as lost or lost. But unique scenes where the cities are filmed from the air as the seasons change from winter to warmer times bring forth a thought of life as something that changes like the tide. Despite all the transformations of a China that is modernized and reoriented to the values of the consumer society, perhaps life has always been full of constant alternations between luck and misfortune, triumph and vulnerability.
Translated by Anders Dunker