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European films

Life, death, and ‘spa treatments’ for the dead – a young Chinese mortician learns her trade

Documentary Almost Heaven follows a 17-year-old trainee mortician as she overcomes her fear of handling corpses and learns how to cut their hair, shave their faces and wash their limbs

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 October, 2018, 7:46pm
UPDATED : Monday, 15 October, 2018, 8:05pm

Death is not a topic most people tend to dwell on, but it is something British filmmaker Carol Salter wanted to explore in her documentary Almost Heaven, which follows a 17-year-old apprentice mortician in Changsha, a city in Hunan province in central China.

The film, which depicts the “spa treatments” given to the deceased at Chinese funeral homes, will be screened on Tuesday at the Asia Society in Hong Kong.

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“My kind of motivation was to deal with my own fear of death,” says Salter, speaking from London, where she is based. “My parents were getting on and I was petrified. I wondered if I could exist without them.”

Salter, who is in her 50s, came across a brief article about young Chinese morticians who perform beauty treatments on the deceased to bring them respect and honour in death. She was so intrigued that she made her first trip to China in 2013 to see the process for herself.

The documentary was shot at the Changsha Ming Yuan Mountain Funeral Home, reportedly one of the largest of its kind in China. The opening scenes show long, dimly lit hallways, staff driving coffins around in golf carts, and draped corpses being transported on hydraulic lifting machines to be stored in floor-to-ceiling storage spaces.

At first, Salter thought of following a group of young morticians, but then realised it would be more meaningful to follow the journey of a single person. She connected with Zhan Yingling, originally from Mianyang in Sichuan province, who had never seen a corpse before, and was afraid of the dark and ghosts.

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“She left home for the first time [to come work at the funeral home], so she was more vulnerable, but at the same time there was a braveness about her,” Salter explains.

“I met some young people who were just beginning their training, and Yingling was so fresh – she looked like a child; she showed every emotion on her face. She had warmth. We had a meal together and we just connected,” Salter says, adding she felt maternal and protective of her.

Zhan recalls that she was not the first choice for the documentary’s main character, but Salter gradually included her in more shots.

“As we grew closer, she understood I was a beginner [at the funeral home] and asked me if I would like to be her main character, and I said, ‘yes’, and thought it might be interesting,” Zhan says.

“At first, I didn’t feel very comfortable and even got distracted from work because of the camera,” Zhan says. “I would look at the camera constantly and feel awkward. So Carol told me to ignore her and her camera, and finally I found ways to concentrate on my work.”

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The film, which was self-financed by Salter, required six trips to China, because she wanted to make the funeral home story more accessible to audiences by also celebrating life. To do this she focused on Zhan and her life outside work. There are scenes of the teenager talking to her parents on the phone, and on days off hanging out with her colleague Ni Jinhua in arcades and fast-food restaurants.

Salter visited several funeral homes, and was struck by the warmth and humour of the young workers (most of whom are migrants from other provinces), as can be seen in the film. “They are like a family to each other,” she says.

A Chinese production company helped Salter approach the Changsha funeral home to ask permission to film the documentary, and after being given the green light, she had to deal with a number of ethical questions: is it OK to film the corpses? How do you film corpses so it’s not distressing for viewers? How do you film this as a foreigner?

Being in another country and dealing with a different culture and language gave Salter a degree of distance in dealing with the finality of death.

“There’s a strange dichotomy in China. There’s a tenderness and harshness around death, but there are also strong emotions,” she says, referring to how the young morticians carefully clean the bodies, and afterwards funeral directors demand payment from grieving families. “I hope I balanced these two things together,” she says.

I overcame my fear gradually, but not entirely. I still feel scared of dead bodies and I would feel most scared when I was left alone.
Zhan Yingling

The only occasion prior to filming Almost Heaven that Salter had seen a corpse was in 2001, when she attended the funeral of a friend who died in 2001.

“The body was embalmed and the face was made up … it was not the person I knew, so it was shocking,” she recalls. “It was quite sanitised.”

So when, in a quirk of fate, both of Salter’s parents died during the four years she spent working on Almost Heaven, she held back from having their corpses embalmed so they still looked familiar to her in death.

Salter says she used a small camera in order to be as unobtrusive as possible while filming. This also helped her capture candid moments, such as Zhan passing time in the funeral parlour, and Zhan and Ni riding in a car to collect a corpse from a hospital.

Salter spent a lot of time in the funeral parlour, waiting and watching for something to unfold.

“In any country where you don’t know the language, you don’t really know what’s going on. There were lots of times I felt it wasn’t appropriate to film. I didn’t want to point the camera at people who were going through the saddest point of their lives,” she explains.

“What made it easier [for grieving families] was the young morticians who filmed the ceremony or spa treatment. The film was something for them to hold on to,” Salter says, adding that she also gave her own footage to some of the bereaved relatives.

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The “spa treatments” are performed by Zhan and her colleagues while family members of the deceased look on. Zhan may cut the corpse’s hair or shave its face. She massages the arms and legs with soap and rinses the corpse with water, all while talking to the lifeless body, saying: “I wash your pain and illness away. I wish you a good journey.”

“I tried to film it in a respectful way like the young morticians,” Salter says.

Zhan admits she had been terrified of handling the corpses, but also curious. “I overcame my fear gradually, but not entirely. I still feel scared of dead bodies. I would feel most scared when I was left alone,” she says.

The experience in the funeral home has made her more philosophical about life and death, Zhan says.

“Before I started as an apprentice, what I understood about death was that when someone died, he or she was gone forever. However, since I worked [at the funeral home] I got to know a Buddhist, and he often shares his beliefs with me. I came to believe that if someone dies, he or she does not vanish, but enters another world and begins a new life.”

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Almost Heaven premiered last year at the Berlin Film Festival and won the best documentary accolade at the British Independent Film Awards.

“People were touched and moved by it. Some think it was life-affirming,” Salter says, glad that she was able to encourage people to talk about a topic that is taboo in many cultures.

“I wanted the film to be easily accessible, as the topic isn’t. Even people in the funeral industry watched it and found it fascinating to see this ‘spa’ approach, as there is a new movement in the UK about how to deal with the aftercare of bodies in funeral homes.”

It is not the first film Salter has shot in another country. Mayomi (2008) is about a young woman in Sri Lanka struggling to gain her independence, while Unearthing the Pen (2009) is about a Ugandan boy who wants to become literate.

Salter observes that her films are about young people trying to find their voice in society. “When films give people a voice, they gain confidence and find their place. It doesn’t change the world, but the world around them makes them a better person,” she says.

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Salter Almost Heaven is Salter’s first feature-length film. She originally trained as a film editor before she started making films, including some for aid agency Oxfam, for which she worked for a time. “That experience has informed the way I make films and helps me with my storytelling,” she says.

Almost Heaven will be screened at the Asia Society Hong Kong on Tuesday October 16 at 6.45pm. Admission is free, but online registration is required. For more information go to asiasociety.org/hongkong