By Lau Kit-wai
Turning A REAL-LIFE tragedy into a comedy is no easy feat. But mainland director Zhang Yang has done just that in his new film Getting Home.
It is a hilarious but heartbreaking film about a poor migrant worker in China who tries to smuggle the body of his friend and co-worker - who dies unexpectedly - home for burial.
Zhang, one of the brightest stars of Chinese cinema and a household name on the mainland and at overseas film festivals, got the idea for the film from a newspaper report.
He said he was touched by the innocence of the migrant worker.
'There were two kinds of response to the report. Many people thought the man was stupid and ignorant. But there were also many people who thought the man had an innocent quality that we as modern people have now lost.'
That quality is a respect for traditional values such as integrity, persistence and a yearning for home.
'He [the migrant worker] was determined to keep his promise. Because of the promise [to his friend that he would bring his body home if he dies], he carries the dead body all the way.'
The theme of returning home runs through the movie.
There are many characters, such as a woman who puts her son through college by picking through garbage and a sympathetic girl who works in a beauty parlour, who leave their homes in search of a better life.
But no matter what happens to them in the cities, they always miss home.
'To Chinese people, home is a very important part of their lives,' said Zhang.
'I think home in the film refers not only to people's hometown. It also refers to the spiritual roots of people. It can be interpreted as the home inside our hearts, a place that many people have lost touch with when living in modern society.'
Zhang believes that many farmers who leave the countryside to look for work become corrupted and that's why there are so many fake products in China.
'China's economy is developing very fast, and people have changed a lot.'
While the story of a man embarking on a cross-country odyssey with a corpse may sound morbid, the film - written by Zhang and Wang Yao - focuses on the bright side of life.
There are many humorous moments, such as the when the migrant worker pretends his deceased friend has passed out drunk in order to get him on a bus, or when he props him up as a beggar to earn some travelling money.
He is hit by various setbacks, such as being robbed, beaten and ridiculed. But he bounces back quickly and always comes up with a cheerful way to defy the odds.
'This is an attitude towards life. There are many people from the underclass in China who are leading a very difficult and harsh life. I hope these people can maintain an optimistic attitude to life - the spirit of finding pleasure in life amid hardships,' said Zhang.
The 39-year-old director, despite being one of the world's most watched talents and having won awards on the mainland, and in Canada, Spain, Italy and Argentina, said he had no plans to direct a foreign film. After all, China is his home.
'The topics of my films cover real-life problems in China. If I leave my land, it will be difficult for me to have the motivation to make films.'
Getting Home opens on January 25.